Social indicators and social reporting in New Zealand, and the potential contribution of the family whanau and wellbeing project.

Author:Cotterel, Gerard


Along with other Western countries, New Zealand began developing a social indicators programme during the 1970s, but this early period of progress was followed by a languishing of interest in their use that lasted until the turn of the century. The recent renewal of interest in the use of social indicators and social reporting has led to the development of a range of indicator and social reporting exercises. As well as providing a greater range of measurements, these more recent developments promise greater time-depth and analytical purchase. This paper reviews earlier developments but is particularly concerned with overviewing the increased capacities arising from more recent developments and the extent to which these can overcome potential threats to further social monitoring work.


As in many other Western countries, interest in social indicators and social reporting developed in New Zealand during the 1970s. This interest peaked in the early 1980s with the release of the results from the Department of Statistics' Social Indicators Survey (1984). Following this, the use of social indicators became less prominent in research and policy until a renewal of interest occurred in the late 1990s. The outcome of this renewed interest has been the launch of a raft of social indicator and social reporting initiatives. Of primary interest among the recent projects are the Big Cities "Quality of Life" (BCQOL) (2) project, developed by a consortium of big cities in New Zealand; the Ministry of Social Development's Social Report; and The University of Auckland's Family Whanau and Wellbeing Project (FWWP). (3)

This paper (4) first looks at early developments in the use of social indicators, both overseas and in New Zealand, and then briefly considers the reasons for the decline in use of these indicators. The substantive part of the paper examines the renewed interest in social indicators and social reporting in New Zealand before discussing the range of new initiatives, with a particular focus on the ways in which the newer programmes increase the descriptive and analytical capabilities of social indicator programmes. The paper concludes by discussing the issues facing these current developments in social indicators and social reporting.


The social indicators literature typically points to the 1960s as the starting point of what is sometimes described as the "social indicators movement". However, like many developments in the social science arena, the actual starting point is contested, and some commentators argue that there is evidence of the early use of social indicators in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States (Noll and Zapf 1994), and in the 1950s by the United Nations (Davey 2000).

Growth in interest in social indicators was rapid during the 1970s. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) had started work on a social indicator programme in 1970 (Noll and Zapf 1994), and in 1974 the Social Indicators Research journal was first published. Several European countries had begun publishing social reports (Great Britain in 1970, France in 1973, the Netherlands and Spain in 1974, Denmark in 1976 and Austria in 1977), and the United States produced three social indicator reports during the 1970s. In addition, by the end of the 1970s the social indicators movement held:

regularly scheduled presentations at national and international professional meetings ... and there was continuing debate within a broad implicit agreement regarding many of the life quality concerns that should be represented in a social indicators system. (Andrews 1990:402)

This widespread and growing interest was attributed to a range of factors. These included a realisation that the technological and economic progress of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s had come at a social cost that was not well understood or measured; and a desire on the part of some to "measure" the "social" sector in a manner similar to how the System of National Accounts and other well-institutionalised economic indicators were used to measure the size and performance of national economies.


Paralleling the overseas events, interest in social indicators and social reporting in New Zealand developed through the 1970s (Davey 2000). The Social Development Council was established alongside the Department of Social Welfare in 1971, and it "developed a set of social objectives centred on the goals of increased opportunity, more equality and greater social well-being" (Davey 2000:52). In order to assess the extent to which these goals were being met, the Council recommended that measures be developed. The Department of Statistics established a Social Indicators Unit in 1976 and published Social Trends in New Zealand (1977), which, as noted in its introduction, was intended to be a regular publication. The information was gathered from a wide range of sources and organised into nine areas of interest: demographic patterns, housing and households, education, health and medical services, social welfare and social security, crime and law enforcement, leisure, labour-force participation and incomes.

Beginning in 1980, the Department of Statistics conducted a Social Indicators Survey. This was a substantial stand-alone survey with a sample of nearly 7,000, and data were collected in eight domains or areas of interest: health, education and learning, employment and quality of working life, time and leisure, command over goods and resources, physical environment, social environment, and personal safety. The survey was based closely on work being carried out by the OECD and was intended to fill gaps in officially collected data (Davey 2000).

The second major development in New Zealand in this early phase was the work of the New Zealand Planning Council's Social Monitoring Group. This group published a feasibility study for social monitoring, which included advice on indicator selection before its first report, From Birth to Death, was published in 1985. This was intended to be "a broad overview of current and emergent social trends, documenting change over time and differences between groups in society" (New Zealand Planning Council 1985:5). As the title intimates, the report used a "life event approach" to structure information and data from a wide range of sources, including the five-yearly Department of Statistics Census of Population and Dwellings, the Social Indicators survey and the Department of Statistics Household Survey.

The Social Monitoring Group published a second report in 1989 using a more rigorous statistical basis, with Census data from 1976, 1981 and 1986, analysed by age ranges, which formed the structure of the report. Despite the abolishment of the Planning Council in 1992, a third report was published in 1993, a fourth in 1998 and the fifth in the series in 2003 (Davey 1993, 1998, 2003).

There were other uses of social indicators in the 1970s and 1980s in New Zealand, primarily "from geographers who were then interested in urban and also rural indicators of social wellbeing" (Crothers 2006), and in several social impact assessment exercises.


Towards the end of the 1980s there was a downturn in interest in social indicators and social reporting, with "a levelling off of the social indicator movement [and] in some countries, as well as for the OECD, statistical programs were terminated" (Vogel 1994:249). The decline in interest is ascribed to a variety of reasons, including methodological and theoretical issues, and a change in the political climate in most Western countries. Bulmer identified three primary theoretical and methodological difficulties at the heart of deficiencies in the development of social indicators. The first, Bulmer argues, is that:

There are no general theories, in sociology, political science or social psychology, which provide the basis on which a set of social indicators could possibly begin to be constructed. (Bulmer 1990:408)

This lack of a theoretical basis did not preclude indicator development, but it did mean that those indicators that were constructed often had no clear conceptual justification. The second issue lay in the lack of a common system of measurement, because, unlike economic indicators, many of which used money as their system of measurement, the social indicators arena lacked a clear measure due to the complexity and variety of subject areas being measured, and the need to disaggregate social effects for sub-groupings. The final area of difficulty lay in the question of values; that is, the difficulty in achieving agreement on what constitutes good and bad indicators, and therefore the provision of rationales for the direction of indicator measurements. Andrews adds a fourth issue: the perceived inability of the developers of social indicators to demonstrate the usefulness of their product to policy makers (Andrews 1990:403).

Also significant in the downturn in interest was the changed political and economic environment of the late 1970s and the 1980s. The onset of economic downturns in most Western countries heralded the end of the Keynesian era, with its focus on an enhanced role for the state, and consequential planning and monitoring. In many countries the election to power of right-wing governments signalled the beginning of a period of economic reform. During the extensive economic restructurings that followed, concern with the measurement of the social impacts of the changes via social indicators was neglected in many countries, though one could well argue that this was when it was most needed. In New Zealand there was some development of local-level social impact and poverty monitoring studies, but nothing systematic at the national level (Crothers 2006).

However, despite the decline in interest in the indicators area,...

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