Sasha Graham | CSI Blog
What kind of Australia do we want?
We all want a better life, for ourselves and our children. We also care about the progress of our communities and our country. We like to think that we will leave a positive legacy for the generations that come after us. But how do we know if we, as a nation, are on the right track? What does progress really mean? How do we decide what counts as progress? How can we measure how well we are succeeding? By definition, the progress of a nation or a community is measured by how well it moves towards set goals and values. Until recently, most of the national conversations about our progress have been focused on economic growth or GDP as the key goal for Australia. The growth of wicked problems such as social and financial exclusion, mental health and environmental degradation are all linked to our state of wellbeing. Now, more than ever, human progress is increasingly being understood as more complex than this, including the values that underpin our life together, goals that relate to our wellbeing as individuals and as communities, and the effective and sustainable use of our resources for the wellbeing of future generations.
Deciding what progress means for Australia and how to measure it isn’t simply a matter of policy for lawmakers or a technical question for experts. It’s a democratic question for all Australians. Interestingly, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was the first national statistics office in the world to develop an integrated set of national progress measures and this project itself became one of the main inspirations for the OECD’s global project. Over the past year, there have been some interesting developments at the Federal level, with commencement on development of Australia’s Wellbeing Index announced in 2010. Where traditional polling methods and ‘social-lite’ census questions exist, there is a need for local place-based approaches in addressing disadvantage and sustainability.
Place or asset-based strategies have emerged as a key element of the Australian Government’s Social Inclusion Agenda, and last year its Social Inclusion Unit released a groundbreaking report, Governance Models for Location Based Initiatives. Based on deep research and consultation, the Board provided a set of recommendations and proposed that location-based initiatives should be based on six key elements:
- a clear connection between economic and social policy and programs at a local level;
- a framework for providing integration of effort across governments;
- a level of devolution that allows significant and meaningful local involvement in determining the issues and solutions;
- capacity development at both local level and in government, without which greater community engagement or devolution of responsibility will be impossible;
- and funding, measurement and accountability mechanisms that are designed to support the long term, whole-of-government and;
- community aims for an initiative, rather than attempting to build an initiative around unsuitable measurement and accountability
This is reinforced by recent developments in NSW Government with release of the Department of Education’s Connected Communities strategy. The strategy positions disadvantaged schools within high Indigenous/disadvantaged populations as community hubs. Similar to any location or ‘asset’ or place-based strategy, these hubs will be co-designed with each community based on contextual information from a comprehensive community profile, including input from the community about its strengths, issues, vision and aspirations. And, this month the Strategy was raised as a matter of public importance in NSW Parliament with support by the Opposition. This is a radical move which is sure to advance the collective social impact mission.
Progress is more than economic growth
In the past decade, there has been increasing recognition that national wellbeing is based more than just economics. This movement is being driven by citizens, policymakers, academics and statisticians working together globally and locally and championed by international organisations like the OECD and the United Nations.
This has stimulated research to define fulfillment and quality of life through measures related to social, cultural, spiritual and environmental dimensions. A focus on wellbeing recognizes that increased economic wealth is not always positively aligned with increased health and happiness of an individual or the wider community. Hazel Henderson put it aptly that, ‘statistical codes become the DNA of our nations’ and that ‘they reflect society’s values and goals and become the key drivers of economic and technological change’.
Here is an interesting link to national “indicator land map” which highlights various indexes and projects from the Australian Community Indicators Network.
So, who should decide what progress is, our values and goals are for our nation or communities? Why should citizens be engaged in that task? And how can they be best engaged? And, why should we measure our progress (national, community) and how best to?
Understanding community wellbeing
Wellbeing is a holistic concept that is closely related to ‘quality of life’ and wicked problems that face communities require non-linear, iterative processes to solve them. An understanding of genuine progress requires multi-dimensional measurement. Each of these dimensions is a ‘domain’, for example; environmental, social, economic and cultural. Within a domain, there are numerous specific indicators of progress and programs or activities (outputs) to support them. Indicators, Schmindicators *reader mumbles*. Perhaps the best way to convey the concept of a community wellbeing project is to explain my experience whilst working on fly-in/fly-out social impact projects in rural and remote areas of Queensland while at The Hornery Institute. In order to gain a deeper understanding of these communities, we developed a place-based strategy to engage all stakeholders in exploring the issues, aspirations and opportunities inherent to the local government area (Maranoa and Gladstone). Through an inclusive approach we were able to meaningfully engage people about what they value, working collaboratively to prototype and develop community agreed sustainability indicators framework and suggested social programs that would help mitigate potential negative impacts of industry.
We consulted widely, with over 750 voluntarily participants from schools, local businesses, farmers, landowners, NGO’s, industry, Indigenous groups, local government, universities and state government using a combination of participatory group action research methods and face-to-face meetings. Meanwhile, back at headquarters desktop team members undertook research to profile the community using demographical ABS data, regional strategies and other ethnographic research. Appreciative enquiry methods had us also photographing the urban character and its heritage as we mapped the local community services and facilities (assets).
We gained a lot through the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ and I was blown away with the willingness of the community in sharing their insights to intelligently map and tap the resources within the local area. They were knowingly committed to helping themselves with that self-determination common to most Queenslanders. Throughout the project we returned to engage original community groups and present findings, adding to their ideas for suggested programs, community assets and urban planning. Given the independent status of working for a non-profit community development organization, we were able to scaffold trusting relationships.
Reams of butchers paper later, delivery of the studies to community groups they intelligently deliberated, voted and agreed on priorities for approval of each community wellbeing framework. It was true democracy in action. The indicators in each domain are transparent, were publicly released and are referenced often. To demonstrate the impact of the study (Maranoa LGA) fifteen community development programs have been implemented since 2010. Not all issues could be addressed alone by the local community, but the process served as an evidence gathering exercise to identify externalities that could inform higher tiers of government to undertake more research in areas, such as health and human services or environmental legislation. However, combined with a collective impact approach, there is unlimited potential for more humanitarian service design which can serve to create system level change.
Through our work we developed strong relationships, particularly the Lord Mayor who invited us to present the study at Council’s AGM. Based on community support for the project, we also met with Premier Bligh’s office and Queensland University to discuss the community wellbeing approach as a more stringent method of evaluating social impact assessments for environmental impact assessment development applications.
The community wellbeing framework is intended to provide complete impact data to drive forward positive change and sustainability around key areas of community defined progress. Once experienced and understood, the approach is essentially a concept which makes sense to everyone. Despite the complexity and ambiguity of working on experimental projects with communities, my intention is to leave you with a good impression of just how practical and enjoyable place-based projects can be. A transparent framework for measuring progress, over time, is a journey that involves all stakeholders within a local context to establish agreed priorities for the community, therefore creating evidence of a shared vision for the future. Local engagement with as many stakeholder groups as possible serves to articulate community concerns, aspirations and policy priorities for the future of their area and community – which is really, everyone’s business.
The need for a locally supported approach
Redefining progress requires a contextual approach, and while common wellbeing framework methodologies exist, perhaps the biggest barrier is that current indicator initiatives are a bit of a magpie. Given that measurement of community wellbeing requires the development of location-specific studies, currently we are lacking a cohesive and visible national entity at the macro level that supports local community and governments to undertake this work easily on the ground. And, although data research has gone to great lengths in seeking to highlight certain indicators, for example, financial exclusion, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that truly reflects other meaningful priorities and indicators for sustainability from one community to the next. This is why a shared cross-sectoral commitment by State and Local Government is urgently needed in building momentum for the development of community wellbeing action plans.
We expect place-based indicator frameworks will provide a richer evidence base from local governments that will inform and guide Federal government on ‘community accounts’ of wellbeing to prioritise strategic funding and policy decisions. This will be enabled by a combination of networked and online engagement. With the growing innovation of interactive platforms, the proposition of using the internet makes this idea a whole lot more do-able. Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of community accounts we could hope to emulate is in the Canadian province of Newfoundland-Labrador.
Once in full swing, a platform like this would help guide due diligence for social investment; scope more strategic social enterprise development; provide crowdsourcing opportunities; form volunteering initiatives, providing an evidence base of unmet need to stimulate creative financing, for example, matched community development funding through councils and community banks.
There are a number of benefits from a national index which reflects more holistic local priorities. With the capacity to distil multiple dimensions of progress measures, it will also attract high levels of public, political and media attention that will be referenced frequently. The single number result will be the doorway through which people will start thinking about which elements of progress matter most to them. It will also challenge the specificity of economic measures that are currently used.
Progress on measuring progress – an Australian National Development Index (ANDI) is underway
….which brings me to ANDI and what this blog is really all about. Its development has been a long process in Australia going back 16 years, with some members providing international input since the 1970s. It is an independent, citizen-led, community initiative to revitalise our democracy and engage all Australians in a national debate about our shared vision for Australia. Based on the idea of an ongoing national conversation about what kind of society we want to be, ANDI’s aim is to help develop clear, ongoing measures of our progress towards increasing equitable and sustainable wellbeing through an Australian National Development Index. ANDI’s interim National Organising Committee comprises a large collaborative of distinguished practitioners from government, non-profit and academic institutions, with key advisors and sponsors from across the sectors. ABS is a key partner to ANDI for development of the Australian Wellbeing Index. ANDI seeks partners from the private, not-for-profit, academic, government and philanthropic sectors. ANDI and the Australian Community Indicators Network are working closely together to develop the tools for citizens to be engaged in measuring, planning and discussing their own communities, whether local or national. ANDI is currently seeking to form a partnership with an information technology company to support the technical development of its website, as well as media partners and sponsors to help advocate and drive this national and locally led initiative.
For more information please see the ANDI website: www.andi.org.au
This post previously appeared in the CSI Blog: What kind of Australia do we want and how do we know if we are making progress?