Monitoring the Changing Social Conditions of New Zealanders
Crothers, Charles, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand
An agenda for developing a systematic, comprehensive and coherent set of annual social indicators using available statistics is advanced. Such indicators would allow the changing social conditions of New Zealanders to be regularly monitored. A preliminary attempt is essayed to assemble and display such indicators using the more readily available of such statistics. Trends are identified and the theoretical and methodological foundations are laid for the possible construction of interrelated models, which would show how different domains of social life influence each other. It is advocated that institutional arrangements be set up to provide adequately contextualised interpretative accounts of such time-series, including attention to interrelationships amongst domains and policy implications.
"Social indicators" are institutionalised measures of social well-being or quality of life. These have relevance to policy, generally through alerting policy analysts to deteriorating social conditions or in measuring broad impacts of policies. They are designed to both offset and complement economic indicators that measure the aggregate well-being of a country's economy. From the 1960s a "social indicators movement", of social scientists and policy analysts interested in promoting social indicators, has agitated for more systematic development of social indicators and for policy makers to pay them more heed in their policy considerations.
The social indicators movement has both risen and then languished in New Zealand. An early conference endeavoured to push the concept under the sponsorship of New Zealand's UNESCO Commission (Cant et al. 1979), and its later fruits came with a one-off Statistics Department survey (1984). Further influence came with some attention from the Social Monitoring Group (SMG) of the New Zealand Planning Council (which gave rise to the "From Birth to Death" series of publications, of which Tracking Social Change in New Zealand: Birth to Death IV (Davey 1998) is the most recent). However, no system of social indicators has become institutionalised, and the longer-term effect of work on social indicators has been apparently minimal.
Certainly, some "social reporting" continues, largely by virtue of the efforts of people involved in these earlier efforts. However, this work either takes a quite broad focus on changes in aspects of social structure or takes a quite narrow focus on the harder end of social indicators: health, income and poverty. Although some published material is of particular pertinence (especially Davey 1998 and Thorns and Sedgwick 1997) these publications only partially perform the tasks of a social monitoring report, as they have wider concerns. A particular difficulty is that publication of large reports such as these can suffer from lack of timeliness although, impressively, Davey includes 1996 census data only two years later, while Thorns and Sedgwick include data series up to 1994 in their 1997 publication.
Some effort in social monitoring has recently been made by particular agencies in New Zealand. The most advanced system is that being conducted by the New Zealand Health Information Service, which is developing a National Health Index, Medical Warning System and National Minimum Data Set (see http://www.nzhis.govt.nz/DataDictionary).
Internationally there also seems to be a more widespread interest arising in social indicators and monitoring. A sweep around appropriate websites reveals work being carried out in several UN or UN-related agencies (most notably the Human Development Report Office) and other units at national and regional levels. For example, UNICEF issues "Statistical Profiles" for the countries of Asia and Pacific (and other regions), which include for each country: total population, children, annual births, infant mortality, Gross National Product per capita, proportion of under-five children who are underweight and proportion of children reaching grade 5). …