Wellbeing is on everybody’s agenda these days, it seems, and perhaps never more so than mere days out from our first ‘Wellbeing Budget’ in New Zealand. We will get to see for the first time what happens when decision-makers take an explicitly holistic view of wellbeing into account when deciding where and how New Zealand spends its money.
It is from this precipice of anticipation that I was invited to join academics and community members in Canberra to share insights from the New Zealand experience at an important point in their own journey. At the end of last year, the ACT Government announced plans to develop a wellbeing framework of their own, and at the workshop the ACT Chief Minister and Minister for Health and Wellbeing announced an ambitious path to get there in under a year.
Canberrans wanted to hear from New Zealand because we have been on this path for a long time. The Living Standards Framework, the Treasury wellbeing framework that will underpin this year’s budget, has been evolving for eight years. That’s not the only model in town either: we have Māori wellbeing models, ministry-led wellbeing models, regional wellbeing indices, programme outcomes frameworks. We have values-driven models, actuarial models, evidence-based models. Some of these models are decades old; some just a few years.
Reflecting on this, here is what I shared in Canberra.
Firstly be clear on what you want your framework to do. Are you developing a framework for monitoring, policy advice or as an investment tool? If we are truly going to bring about change in the wellbeing of families and communities, it has to be the latter. To do that a framework needs consensus, it needs to be transparent and should be underpinned by evidence – or at least logic – that people can understand.
And it needs the input and support from the wider wellbeing ecosystem, and the very people it purports to be in service of. I encouraged Canberrans to think broadly about how families derive and maintain their wellbeing. It’s easy to think in terms of public services, cultural connection or environmental quality, but the value of other parts of the ecosystem are less well understood. For example, we undervalue the role of employers in wellbeing. Businesses can provide employment that is satisfying, challenging, secure and with opportunity. They can choose to actively promote the wellbeing of their people: through a living wage, flexible leave policies, support for car pools and health and resilience investments. If we take the time to understand the system better, we will build a framework that better represents the levers that are available to us to make change.
Engaging the system is, of course, no substitute for engaging families and communities themselves. Without that, we will have cookie-cutter thinking about the domains of wellbeing, without the human understanding of what is most important and how that varies across our communities. This goes beyond asking people what is important to them: we already do that in myriad ways through consultations, feedback, co-design processes and surveys. I was heartened to hear the ACT Chief Minister set out a process which started with reviewing what Canberrans have told them through consultations past. But moving beyond consultation to co-creating meaningful, balanced indicators is the catalyst for a framework that reflects a people and a place.
So much for the ‘why’s and the ‘how’s of developing a wellbeing framework, then. What has New Zealand learned about what should be in one?
There is plenty of evidence around domains of wellbeing and “good” indicators, but there are some underlying concepts that play out across a framework that can guide how we choose and what we prioritise.
One of the great strengths of many of New Zealand’s frameworks is the explicit inclusion of security of wellbeing, both within individuals’ lifetimes (resilience) and across generations (intergenerational wellbeing). The Living Standards Framework achieves this through the four capitals, and an explicit focus on risk and resilience. Māori frameworks do this through an inherently intergenerational outlook which values whānau wellbeing, the wellbeing of the land and its relationship to the wellbeing of its people. This is so important in a world where shocks keep coming, and where internationally we are seeing more and more families recover from shocks but not to the levels of wellbeing they had before. Wellbeing is neither constant nor linear, and an enduring framework needs to hold future and current wellbeing in balance.
An area we can all do better in is measuring wellbeing, not its absence. In domain after domain, we actually measure a paucity of wellbeing (think mental health or unemployment rates) or just one step better, a baseline (think school leaver pass rates). Measuring positive wellbeing doesn’t have to be subjective, and it certainly doesn’t have to be fluffy.
So how might we do that? Firstly, we can look to the qualitative and longitudinal evidence. For example, there is growing evidence that maternal mental health has a substantial impact on lifelong wellbeing of children. Mums are a cohort with reasonably high engagement with health and social providers; capturing positive indicators of wellbeing through, say, Plunket, would provide insight into a cohort with a disproportionate ripple effect.
Alternatively we can look to the gaps. When we look at the data for children and young people in care, we find a cohort who – despite similar experience of trauma to the broader cohort – show much lower incidence of mental health and behavioural issues. What if we understood what was going right for them, and incorporated that into our wellbeing frameworks? That would be a pretty powerful change.
One of the big questions ACT is asking itself is, how this will be an enduring and meaningful framework for Canberrans? What really matters is does it make a difference: for us, for our whānau and for the New Zealanders that need it the most. I know our friends in Canberra will be watching the Wellbeing Budget with almost as much interest as us.
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