Australia’s first Social Progress Index ranks states by human needs, wellbeing and opportunity

By Chris Woods

Friday February 28, 2020

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A social progress index is not a new idea but a UNSW Centre for Social Impact team led by Dr Megan Weier has developed and launched Australia’s first quantitative break-down of SPIs at the state level. It was a massive effort resulting in a true snapshot of Australia’s social standing on domestic and global benchmarks.

Today, the UNSW Centre for Social Impact (CSI) has launched Australia’s first Social Progress Index, an interactive guide to state and territory social progress indicators (SPI) scores based on basic human needs, foundations for wellbeing, and opportunities.

According to lead researcher on the Australian project, CSI Research Fellow Dr Megan Weier, SPI offers an alternative to quantifying progress beyond economic indicators, and provides governments, corporate and not-for-profit sectors insight into more “slippery concepts” such as inclusiveness, access to information and communication, and personal rights.

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A global index has been calculated since 2013; this is Australia’s first quantitative break-down of SPIs at the state level spans 2015-18.

While the website comes online today, it follows a launch event in Canberra on Wednesday, where — even as the proposal of a “wellbeing budget” receives open mockery in Question Time — Weier says that intent at quantifying social health was openly received by the Parliamentary Friends of Social Sciences, a group comprised of co-chairs Greens leader Adam Bandt, Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh, and Liberal MP David Sharma.

“Personally, it was a lot to be at Parliament presenting this baby that I’ve been working on for the last 12 months — in a really wonderful way,” Weier laughs. “It was great in that all three of the CO chairs were recognizing that if we want to be talking about the health of Australia, we have to be moving beyond just economic measures, such as GDP.”

“And they were saying, ‘this is really important, but until now, we haven’t necessarily had a quantifiable measure where we can compare and get a sense of where we’re at in the country’.”

Let’s see how the team got there, what they found, and how government might apply the results.

Background

Developed in collaboration with a team of scholars led by Professor Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School, the Index is being used by national and city leaders across Latin America, and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy for agenda setting, policymaking, prioritizing resource mobilisation and measuring impact.

The Social Project Index is part of the Amplify Social Impact project, which is lead by CEO Kristy Muir and in turn funded by the UNSW 2025 strategy and Centre for Social Impact, supported by Swinburne University and University of Western Australia, and partnered with a global group focused on fostering social indicator framework, the Social Progress Imperative, which are a global group.

According to Weier, the team first consulted with academics, not-for-profit organisations, industry, and local, state and federal government departments, in order to both introduce the idea of SPI and discuss potential data sources, which ultimately ranged everywhere from NAPLAN to ABS to Australian Electoral Commission to state environment agencies.

Methodology

Despite an initial wishlist of 450 social indicators, researchers were limited by not just data availability but compounding requirements such as state and territory uniformity, annual updates, reliability, and quantitative, as opposed to qualitative, answers.

Weir, who spent roughly 14 months on the project, explains how particular challenges around uniform quality environmental and more esoteric “opportunity” data helped bring total indicators for Australia’s index to 52.

“Because state and territory environmental organisations are usually left to collect the data in their own way, it wasn’t necessarily comparable,” Weier says. “So we definitely need to be getting better data around waste management, of waste collection, things around water scarcity, [and] around pollution.

On opportunity indicators, she notes that “we’re really good at collecting administrative data about health and also personal safety, but when it comes to how included people feel in their communities, or how they feel like they have personal rights, that’s more of a qualitative or a survey based data.

“And that’s something that is collected far less consistently at a national level, and so that’s definitely something we’d like to see more of in the future.”

Ultimately, the process resulted in 12 broader indicators shown below, along with a corresponding example from the 52 specific indicators:

Basic human needs

  • Nutrition & basic medical care (ie., infant mortality)
  • Water & sanitation (ie., waterborne diseases, such as shingellosis)
  • Shelter (ie., estimated homelessness rate)
  • Personal safety (ie., from physical assaults)

Foundations of wellbeing

  • Access to basic knowledge (ie., NAPLAN Numeracy Year 9)
  • Access to information & communications (ie., digital access)
  • Health & wellness (ie., community mental health treatment)
  • Environmental quality (ie, sulfur dioxide concentrations)

Opportunity

  • Personal rights (ie., police integrity)
  • Personal freedom & choice (ie., child abuse substantiations — Indigenous disparity)
  • Inclusiveness (ie., gender pay gap)
  • Access to advanced education (ie., post-high school enrolment)

After data collection and unification came calculation: using SPI methodology developed in collaboration with a team of scholars led by Professor Michael E. Porter of Harvard Business School, the team had to both weigh indicators and then create spectrums for data points from ‘0’, for international worst practice, and ‘100’ for best.

Weir notes that the process of quantifying ‘0-100’ parameters for this data — where definitions for indicators varied between ‘voter registration’ and ‘total proportion in agreement with ‘police treat people fairly and equally’ — was a substantial critical thinking exercise, and incorporated both historical “best practice” examples and goals such as the UN’s 17 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (ie., no poverty; clean water and sanitation; peace, justice, and social institutions).

For a much more detailed, smarter breakdown of the methodology, read the team’s corresponding report here.

Results

In simple terms, ACT ‘won’ in 2018 by a handy 11 points, NSW and Queensland bookended the eastern and southern states, Western Australia came a distant 7th, and, trailing by over 20 points, the Northern Territory came dead last:

  1. ACT: 69.76
  2. NSW: 58.15
  3. TAS: 57.38
  4. VIC: 56.46
  5. SA: 55.35
  6. QLD: 54.32
  7. WA: 50.28
  8. NT: 28.02

For a specific comparison, people in the ACT enjoyed 76.77 for access to water and sanitation while those in the NT saw just 13.60; ditto ‘personal rights’, where the ratio approximates 82:32

“We expected ACT to score well; we didn’t expect that they would come top of social progress for all four years of the index,” Weier says. Similarly, the team “expected that Northern Territory would probably be last in the rankings, but I think it was pretty confronting to see how stark the difference was.”

The four-year data set means researchers could also point to areas where, even if the overall score well well behind average, service provision was improving; the Northern Territory, while lagging on all available indicators, still improved between 2015 to 2018.

Importantly, however, the final indicators are only state-wide; as Weier notes, they do not distinguish between regional and rural areas; actual water purity and access across NSW, for example, will vary significantly between Sydney and Dubbo, where the dam sits at 5%.

“It’s a really good first insight into what social progress looks like within different states and territories, but I think it’s really important to include the fact that there’s going to be intersectionality within that.”

“Particularly for the Northern Territory, where we’re considering that most people live in remote locations, and that there’s a high proportion of the population that are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, that’s going to really impact on things like access to health services. And while we know that there’s disparities in how health care is received for Indigenous people, so that’s all going to impact on the overall score and the outcomes of the indicators that we include.”

Government application

As the website notes, “the Social Progress Index is intended to be accessible, and actionable. It cannot tell us what policies or social decisions should be made, but it can help direct attention to the unique needs across Australia’s states and territories.”

Further, the index has been used across Latin America and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy for agenda setting, policymaking, prioritising resource mobilization and measuring impact.

“In Paraguay, for example, when they’re talking about their national progress, it’s no longer just a growth in gross domestic product, but it’s actually gross domestic product plus increases in social progress” Weier says. “It’s also been used in the European Commission to help determine its priorities, particularly around youth and inclusiveness in society.”

Now, Weier’s team will begin planning a state and territory roadshow aimed at discussing specific results with state and territory governments, to “ideally highlight to governments where they should put perhaps the greater urgency in attention to what they’re looking at.”

A secondary application will focus on using the SPI to create a way of measuring Australia’s progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, where she says most of the work currently has come from global measurements.

“We don’t really have a sense of how we can measure our progress within Australia,” Weier says. “So with the Social Progress Imperative, we’re trying to work out a way of applying the components of the SPI to each of the 17 SDGs and work out a way of sort of giving a bit of an indicator, or a dashboard, in just how we’re going at achieving those goals.”

Final thoughts

Finally, Weier notes that she hopes people beyond the government, academic and not-for-profit sectors engage with the index, and that, while the parliamentary launch was overwhelmingly positive, there were well-justified questions over both gaps and causes behind the data.

The next part of the process will require both growing data sets to measure hyperlocal results — she offers a NSW Social Progress Index or “nation-wide children’s SPI” as examples — and analysing the existing data set for policy solutions.

“This is the first of a conversation, and an index is only as good as the data that’s in it,” Weier says. “We want to improve the index over time.”

“For me personally, if I can be part of an index that is helping to draw attention to some of these issues, and help create a more equitable society, then that’s a really humbling and really lovely thing to be part of.”

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