The future wellbeing of New Zealanders should be one of our country’s biggest priorities, but it’s not always easy to focus on – after all, how do you quantify something so complex?
That’s where good reporting comes in. Reporting on performance, on benefits, costs and other impacts can bring enormous benefits both in terms of transparency and holding people accountable for results – or the lack thereof.
There are plenty of potential first steps towards improving wellbeing. For example, New Zealand should consider following Australia’s example in establishing a Workplace Gender Equality Agency, even if its sole purpose were to mandate reporting on progress towards achieving true gender equality in the workplace. Better quality data would also enable a much improved ability to evaluate initiatives so time is not wasted in pursuit of ineffectual activities. Of course this is true across a range of areas, not just gender equality.
However, reporting on its own – no matter how comprehensive – is simply not sufficient. The potential of the Living Standards Framework to make an impact on the wellbeing of New Zealanders will be severely diminished if the only output is a dashboard. It would represent a gross failure to grasp the opportunity to genuinely think differently about such fundamentals as funding allocations, institutional settings and even system design - for example in the health and education systems - through a wellbeing lens.
There is a big opportunity right now for the Government to exercise some quite fundamental shifts in public sector settings in key areas to improve the quality of life of Kiwis. Possibly, these shifts could be as significant as those designed in the 1980s and 1990s. But it is critical that any shifts are designed within a consistent framework or “blueprint” – and it is certainly feasible to consider the Living Standards Framework as the basis for that blueprint.
For example, within the health system, and more widely across the education and welfare systems, there have been recent attempts to introduce family-by-family approaches to support households navigate government and other services to achieve better outcomes. Pasifika Futures, a Whanau Ora Commissioning Agency, is an excellent example that has already delivered tangible benefits.
But these approaches – however well-designed - do not attempt to change any system settings; they merely support families to navigate around the existing systems. This is undoubtedly important when the system is complex and poorly integrated, needs are high, and there is a lack of information-sharing between agencies meaning individuals themselves are often the sharing mechanism. For example, as between early childhood educators and primary schools.
This means these approaches can never really be scaled up to deliver widespread improvements in wellbeing because the system itself is pushing back.
Over the years I have had many conversations with my mother (Anne Meade, whose leadership of the Education to be More report – often referred to as the “Meade report” - was instrumental in ensuring that early childhood education could benefit from the changes that resulted from Tomorrow’s Schools) about the principles and philosophies that drove the design thinking under Tomorrow’s Schools and Education to be More (for ECE). Core to the philosophies were:
• An equally balanced emphasis on educational quality (i.e., human capital development) and supporting women’s workforce participation, both from the perspective of enabling women to lead better lives (part of social capital) and to improve economic productivity (financial capital).
• A detailed examination of institutional settings, with a view to aligning incentives with desired outcomes. For example, by putting all ECE settings on a level footing and establishing multi-layered governance giving local decision-makers equal standing with centralised agencies.
So then, does the Living Standards Framework have the potential to provide the foundation for designing amended system settings, resulting in materially improved outcomes? The jury is still out on this critical question. However, the potential is there and that is what we should be aiming for. It is important not to overcomplicate the process: after all the system is already complex enough.
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