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Metrics matter but so too does the knowledge they enable

In July the ‘Measuring what matters’ statement was released as the government’s first wellbeing framework. It was immediately engulfed in criticism that the data it relied upon wasn’t up to date.

The challenge to identify meaningful metrics to track progress is real. I see it routinely in the challenge for health and legal services who are responding every day to high and growing levels of need, yet are operating from a level of chronic underfunding that leaves them without basic capacity or capability to measure their outcomes.

The government’s wellbeing framework includes welcome attention to access to justice. Yet even here, the data used reflects only a fraction of the available remedies to unmet civil legal need.

At the same time, criticism of the metrics shouldn’t distract us from the wellbeing framework’s underlying purpose. If we let data challenges stop us from defining outcomes and measuring progress towards them, we’ll never make progress at all.

Rejecting the wellbeing framework because its data is not ideal distracts us from its real purpose. It is a call to action and a plan to achieve it. It is the first time our national government has worked to track social progress as a key accountability of public policy and the decisions governments make about spending in support of those policies.

It reminds me of a story I heard about the closing the gap targets. A few months after they were first set by the Rudd Government in 2008, I was meeting with researchers to explore what data was available to track poverty and inequality in Australia (at the time, not a lot!) One academic talked about the ‘scramble’ that was continuing in the wake of the commitment to close the life expectancy gap within a generation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous Australians. While the targets had been widely welcomed, the data sources to monitor and report on them were not in place. This had prompted a flurry of activity between those holding administrative datasets, academics and other experts to establish how to track progress towards this commitment.

Many of those best placed to provide the data felt caught unawares and denied the time they would have liked to leverage their expertise for the knowledge and benefit of the public policy objective. But now, years later, our annual assessment of progress (or lack of) towards the closing the gap targets has become a foundational measure of Australia’s social progress and a basis for the work to address the health inequities and injustices of the ongoing impacts of colonisation.

Similarly, the key contribution of the ‘Measuring what matters’ framework is the promise it represents: a promise from the Australian Government that measures of social progress will be established, developed, monitored and reported on, as a key measure of the government’s accountability to us all. And that really matters.  

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