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Measuring a healthy Canberra

May 03, 2019

Canberra is one of Australia's healthiest communities and, as a progressive government, we're looking to measure the wellbeing of Canberrans over the long term.

Below is a speech I gave to the University of Canberra and the Australian National University Wellbeing Indicators Workshop at ANU today:

Measuring a healthy Canberra

By any of the standard economic metrics, Canberra is doing very well. We consistently have among the lowest unemployment rates in the country, our economy has grown faster than every other state or territory for several years now, and our population is growing by around 8,000 a year as more people are attracted by our unique mix of big city amenities, great local services and liveability.

On a per capita basis the ACT is now Australia’s leader in services exports – thanks particularly to our great universities and research institutions – and in the last four years over 2,000 new businesses have started up in Canberra.

These indicators matter because a strong economy is fundamental to delivering a decent quality of life for Canberrans. Having a good, secure job, the ability to meet your family’s needs, and being able to plan for the future with confidence are the basics for a good life.

Canberra is more than an economy - it's a community

But they’re not the only things that matter. Canberra is more than an economy – it’s a community where we aim for everyone to share in the benefits of a good life.  

There is a lot more to that good life than what’s in your bank account or how much your house is worth.

Our wellbeing – both as individuals and as a community – is also determined by things like our environment, our connections to place and others, the quality of our services and institutions, how inclusive we are towards others and our preparedness to contend with future challenges and opportunities.

These are things we don’t currently track as attentively or regularly as our economic indicators. We believe it’s time to change that here in the ACT.

Late last year I announced that our Government would develop a set of Wellbeing Indicators for the ACT.

Since then, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to go about this and what the right set of indicators needs to encompass. This morning I’d like to briefly share some of this thinking, and particularly outline how experts like yourselves, stakeholders and the wider Canberra community will be involved in developing them over the coming months.

What should we measure

Something we have learned in our early explorations on wellbeing indicators is that there are about as many views on what these should measure as there are experts in the field!

To be useful, a set of indicators need to be broad enough to encompass the various different facets of wellbeing, but specific enough that we can track progress and make policy or investment decisions using the insights gained.

The OECD How’s Life index, New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework and the Victorian Government’s Public Health and Wellbeing Outcomes Framework are all useful examples of an approach which identifies categories of focus and then breaks these down into distinct domains with specific indicators attached.

I’m particularly attracted to the New Zealand approach of thinking in terms of natural, social, human and financial/physical capital.

This recognises that our environment, our community and our people are valuable resources for protecting and growing the wellbeing of Canberrans, so decisions that might boost our financial capital at the expense of any of these other ‘capitals’ must factor in the total impact on wellbeing.

We’ve been using the triple bottom line approach within the ACT Government for over a decade now to try and make these broader considerations part of the policy process.

But having a contemporary framework for tracking progress against them that is public and transparent will make these trade-offs much clearer for policymakers and Canberrans alike, to help drive change where it’s needed.

The question of which domains should be a focus within each of these ‘capitals’ is a fascinating one, and there is clearly no single, correct answer.

It comes down to what we value as a community, what we are worried about, and also how we’re already tracking in areas that matter.

For example, some wellbeing frameworks look at school completion rates as one of the indicators within the category of human capital and skills.

The ACT is one of Australia’s leaders on that front with a retention rate that is consistently well above 90 per cent, so this is an area where we’re already doing well.

There are other areas where we clearly have more work to do. From the Government’s perspective, some of the priorities include:

  • improving access to housing and strengthening family cohesion so that we can reduce homelessness and family violence
  • boosting early intervention to improve social connectedness and reduce the number of people coming into contact with the justice system
  • growing the social inclusion of older people so that they are recognised as valued members of our community and enabled to lead productive and active lives
  • supporting Canberrans to make lifestyle choices that boost their physical and mental health and reduce chronic disease
  • improving social connectedness and inclusion to reduce the rate of suicides in our community
  • keeping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families healthy and together to tackle intergenerational social exclusion
  • ensuring young people and workers share in our prosperity by equipping them with the right skills for a changing workforce
  • continuing to grow participation in our city’s arts and cultural life
  • making more progress towards a zero carbon future and significantly reducing our city’s carbon emissions.

As we work through the development of the ACT’s Wellbeing Indicators over the coming months, we will be talking with the community about where these fit alongside other shared priorities and what the right metrics are to keep track of them.


Building the ACT's Wellbeing Indicator framework

That brings me to the process. We understand that there are a range of stakeholders and experts like yourselves who are really keen to be involved in developing the ACT’s Wellbeing Indicators.

We value your input and appreciate your insights on what has and hasn’t worked elsewhere.

We will take these away today and, over the next three months, hold a series of broader roundtables to draw together feedback from other stakeholders as well.

For those of you who may wish to participate in these further discussions, our CMTEDD team will have some information to circulate about the dates shortly.

While we are consulting with experts and stakeholders, we will be also be looking back at what Canberrans have already told us is important to them through recent past ACT Government consultation activities.

For example, we know a lot about what matters to Canberrans in relation to our city’s environment and liveability through last year’s Better Suburbs, Planning Strategy Refresh and Climate Strategy consultations.People playing in Woden Town Centre as part of the Woden Experiment. Photo: ACT Government

We know what Canberrans prioritise in terms of affordable housing and access to housing support for people who need it through our work on the ACT Housing Strategy.

We have spent a lot of time consulting in the health and education sectors over the past few years to help drive the big reforms we’re currently in the process of delivering. 

So we don’t want to go out to Canberrans or our stakeholders and ask them to tell us what they’ve already told us or what they think all over again.

We will use the insights we already have and the advice of experts through more targeted engagement to develop a draft framework.

We will then take this draft out to the community for a focused and constructive conversation: does it capture enough of our shared priorities and focus our attention where it’s needed?

Are the indicators tangible, meaningful and specific enough? Is the framework durable enough to last so that it can drive change through the next Parliamentary term and beyond?

This consultation will take place during the second half of this year and we will be looking to engage with Canberrans through a range of different avenues – for example, by incorporating consultation on the indicators into some of the City Renewal Authority’s activations and our place-making activities at town centres across Canberra.

We will launch the final Wellbeing Indicators on Canberra Day in 2020, and the Government will then report against these each year as part of the annual Budget process.

This will ensure we consider these new indicators alongside the traditional economic and financial ones.  

One of Canberra’s greatest strengths is our inclusiveness and our willingness to recognise and respond to the diverse needs of everyone who calls this place home.

The development of these indicators will ensure we keep up this focus on inclusion so that the quality of life and wellbeing of Canberrans keeps growing as our city does.

It’s an exciting project, and we will look forward to working with all of you as we get on with it.