Measuring and monitoring community wellbeing in the Waikato Region

This is a follow-up to my August 2018 post on Tracking Progress in the Waikato Region, and my June 2019 post on Measuring and monitoring quality of life in the Waikato Region, as well as various publications over the past decade or more.

Killerby and Huser (2019) summarises the latest available results from the Waikato Progress Indicators (WPI), a community progress monitoring programme funded and maintained by Waikato Regional Council. The WPI website shows the current situation and trends across each of 32 key economic, environmental and social aspects which together give a ‘dashboard’ picture of the wellbeing of the Waikato region and quality of life of its people and communities. This includes a report card and ‘circle diagrams’ to enable readers to rapidly visualise the current state and trends in the region.

So, is the Waikato Region on track? Looking at each of the 32 indicators in turn, there have certainly been some gains in the region as indicated by the WPI data, such as reduced levels of air particulates in some areas and less road crashes across the region. However, unfortunately around one-third of the indicators have gone backwards over the past decade or so, including (in declining order of scale):

  • Poorer perceptions of community engagement
  • Less physical activity
  • Higher water use
  • More residential expansion onto versatile land (rural subdivision)
  • Lower levels of cultural respect
  • Worse perceived health
  • Lower levels of community pride
  • Fewer Te Reo Māori speakers
  • Less use of public transport
  • lower levels of life satisfaction.

For the remainder of this blog post, I’ll be discussing various ways to summarise the above divergent trends into a single index number – giving a summary measure of overall community wellbeing in the region. This is similar to how economists have adopted a single measure – GDP growth – as a summary indicator of overall economic wellbeing. It is a way of bringing together an overall indication of how well things are doing in the region, socially, economically and environmentally – in the form of a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) or regional wellbeing index.

One way to summarise overall community wellbeing is to look at the key indicator of life satisfaction or overall quality of life. Killerby and Huser (2018) did just that, as part of an analysis of results from Quality of Life surveys of Waikato regional residents. Questions were asked in relation to self-perceived overall quality of life and other aspects of community wellbeing. Compared to 2006, Waikato regional survey respondents in 2018 were less likely to rate their overall quality of life positively (87% in 2018 compared to 90% in 2006).

Another way to summarise overall community wellbeing in the Waikato Region to is to use the time series data for all 32 WPI indicators to construct a summary index. A key question when compiling such an index is how much weight to put on each indicator. One approach, as undertaken in Killerby and Huser (2019), is to apply an equal weighting to every indicator – more specifically, applying the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) reference-year method. When plotted against GDP growth, this shows that overall community wellbeing has been lagging behind economic growth since at least 2003 (noting that the WPI dataset only goes back as far as 2001). The gap narrowed for a few years following the Global Financial Crisis, but in more recent years economic growth has again been more rapid than social or environmental wellbeing.

A related approach also shown in Killerby and Huser (2019) is Principal Components Analysis (PCA), in which the indicator weightings for index construction are determined by the nature of the data itself – more specifically, through eigen-analysis of the covariance matrix of the dataset. This confirms the overall results of the CIW method, showing a widening gap over time between GDP growth and the combined results of all 32 WPI indicators. The overall picture is that community wellbeing in the Waikato Region over the last 10 years increased by about 7% compared to GDP growth of 16% (i.e. GDP doesn’t tell the full story of wellbeing progress). These PCA results were calculated for us by Professor Murray Patterson of Massey University, and in turn have helped inform Professor Patterson’s thinking around developing a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) for New Zealand.

Articulating the 'obvious' can be harder than it sounds

This post is about a document that I began working on in March 2014 which finally got published online in September 2019. It is a story about persistence rather than hard work – the end result is only 14 pages long, including the cover page and contents.

This particular story is tied to the ‘Gonski’ reforms to school funding in Australia. As part of an ongoing attempt to expand Federal control over state and non-government schooling, the Australian Government introduced legislation in December 2013 that codified its national funding formulae and education reform goals. As part of this, section 78 of the Australian Education Act 2013 sought to achieve a further level of standardisation by requiring State Governments’ redistribution of Australian Government school funding to comply with a similar ‘base plus loadings’ approach and to be publicly available and transparent.

Unfortunately, the people who wrote this legislation adopted an overly simplistic and superficial understanding of how schooling systems are resourced. Section 78 only makes sense if each State Government passes all their Australian Government funding directly to their schools as cash. The reality is that Federal and State funding is pooled at the State Treasury level and then appropriated to the State Department of Education to convert into staffing, cash and system resources (e.g. buildings, ICT networks) which is then allocated using a combination of school-level, regional and centralised approaches. It is therefore not possible to track each cent and dollar of Australian Government money down to an individual school level, let alone to a student level or – as is intended by section 78 – down to the level of students with disability, or Indigenous students, or students with limited English language proficiency, etc.

Despite the fact that section 78 is nonsensical, the Australian Government is currently under instruction from its political masters to implement this part of the Act, and thereby somehow hold their State Government underlings to account for how they spend their Federal dollars.

In anticipation of eventually needing a publicly available and transparent description of Queensland Department of Education’s resource allocation methods, in early 2014 I initiated a project to develop such a document. This involved forming a working group from relevant areas – in particular, state school operations, human resources, school financial resources, information technology, infrastructure services – and systematically documenting and summarising how the resource allocations occur.

In any event, Queensland was not a signatory to the initial period of the Gonski reforms (2014-2017) and there was no great appetite to publish a departmental document purely for compliance with a nonsensical piece of legislation. The project was put on hold for several years, then dusted off and finalised largely from November 2017 to June 2018. Even following a rigorous process of project management and governance, graphic design, feedback from key stakeholder groups, Branch and Divisional approvals, and Executive Management Board approval, there was still hesitancy from a minority of senior managers to publish the document.

Finally, following mounting pressure from the department’s Policy, Performance and Planning Division, in September 2019 the document was published online. I am pleased to present to you the Queensland State Schools Resourcing Framework (SSRF) Guide.

Searching for words

This little blog post is about a new e-book I self-published via Amazon, titled ‘Social capital and the wellbeing of nations: Literature view and policy implications‘.

The back-story to this book starts in 1999. In my early 30s, I was working as Social Research Officer at Rotorua District Council and, in parallel, coming to terms with a failed marriage. I was desperately seeking a way to raise myself up mentally. At some point during the year I applied for a three-year PhD scholarship at the University of Otago, and somehow got myself accepted.

The doctoral topic was ‘Social capital and economic performance’, which involved a tonne of reading, data collection, econometric modelling of social capital and economic performance, development of articles for journal publication (often in partnership with one or more other researchers) and presentations at seminars and conferences.

While all of the above went well, I never ended up completing and submitting my doctoral thesis. Instead, after the three years I began full-time consulting with a view to finalising the thesis part-time. However, after three years cloistered in Dunedin, I was more interested in working long hours, earning good income and socialising with old friends.

In August 2005, I finally conceded to myself and my PhD supervisors that I was not going to finish the thesis. In part it was for the reasons above, but also because the subject matter – mathematically estimating the economic value of social capital – just seemed so esoteric and dry to me, remote from the realities and interests around me at the time.

Nevertheless, the discipline of academic researching and writing in which I immersed myself during 2000-2003 has served me well in subsequent years. For many subsequent years, I sought to publish articles in academic journals, to ‘keep my hand in’. In my day job at the Queensland Department of Education, the most satisfying outputs personally are those that involve a final published document. For me, the process of understanding is intertwined with the process of explaining – a virtuous circle, as it were. Articulating in writing my thoughts on a topic or argument has become cathartic. Even the process of writing this blog post gives me a sense of short-term personal achievement and closure that I can carry with me through the rest of the day.

In any event, after publishing my first e-book in December 2017, I decided to finalise my thesis and publish it myself in e-book format. After thinking long and hard about a meaningful strategy, particularly for updating the literature review (given the massive proliferation of research on social capital in the past two decades), I got stuck in and invested sporadic chunks of time here and there until finally I was satisfied.

So, was it worth it? Well I definitely felt a sense of closure. Was it a worthwhile addition to the stock of human knowledge? That is harder for me to assess, having grown fairly close to the topic over the past 19 years and having mixed feelings even to this day – which is why I am only just writing about this in January 2020 after publishing it in April 2019.

So here’s the Abstract to help you reach your own conclusion without reading 167 pages – enjoy….

“This book is for people interested in social capital. It seeks to summarise key theoretical and empirical information on social capital and linkages with economic performance and societal wellbeing. It is underpinned by a broad-ranging literature review encompassing the fields of economics, sociology and political science. A comprehensive list of references is provided. The literature review was done in two stages – initially in the early to mid-2000s, and subsequently in 2018 to capture key literature published over the intervening period.
The phrase social capital has been adopted by academics and policy makers to describe features of society that facilitate cooperation or collective effort. Theory and evidence suggest that social capital is comprised of both a civic and institutional form, characterised by generalised social trust and good governance. Each of these forms has complex impacts on economic performance and human welfare.
Key findings from the literature highlight that countries’ social capital, health, education, wealth, and happiness are intertwined. The marginal value of these intangible societal assets is high in poor countries and lessens when countries have achieved higher levels of economic and social development. Many policy makers therefore view social capital as a key resource for addressing poverty reduction and economic development.”

The leg bone's connected to the knee bone

It’s been six months, apparently, since I last wrote my last blog post. The reason for these posts is to give me extra practice in writing for a general audience – to help develop my writing style, as it were. But this post also tells a more personal story than usual.

This post is a segue to my new ‘post-incident’ life. The incident in question happened mid-afternoon on Sunday 22 December 2019 at my home in the northern suburbs of Brisbane. A few years ago, my wife Lisa and I had laid a block path all the way around our fabulous big house, which added greatly to its amenity. As well as being much more enjoyable to walk on than the gravel path it replaced, the block path was also a smooth, flat area for practicing unicycle riding.

On this particular day just before Christmas, I was about to start a two-week holiday. One of my personal missions for the summer break was to go on a series of long distance bicycle rides. That bright sunny morning, I had finished my second 40 km ride in a row – into the city and back via the Gateway Bridge – so I was feeling fit and positive about starting my holiday period the next day.

A related personal goal for the holiday period was to re-learn how to unicycle, and go on a few ‘long distance’ rides along the nearby smooth, flat Kedron Brook bike path. My plan was to unicycle a few hundred metres at a time initially and build up my distance from there. I had previously learnt to ride at a beginner level about ten years ago, when I migrated to Australia to join my step-family, so it was relatively easy for my body and mind to re-learn the skill with a bit of regular practice.

A key initial milestone in unicycling is to begin cycling without the aid of holding onto anything. This make you much more independent. Falling off a unicycle is a frequent event, and being able to get straight back on is therefore essential. Luckily, my step-son Leon, who was around eight years old when I was initially learning, had taught me a good trick – to visualise I was holding onto a horizontal bar high up in front of me, then pull up on this invisible bar to get my body and arms into position and start pedalling. This had worked back then and was working on this occasion too – which meant I felt ready to head down to the bike path first thing tomorrow morning.

Something to know about unicycling is that, 99% of the time, falling off is a safe and painless procedure. The unicycle either tips backward and you walk forward while it clatters to the ground, or more preferably it tips forward and you either step gracefully off the back and catch the seat before it clatters down, or you miss the catch and your unicycle gets a bit scuffed. So, ‘falling off’ is typically no big deal, just an expected part of the ride.

On this occasion, I was about to do five minutes of gardening with Lisa and I said “just a second, I’ll do one more length of the house”. That split-second decision has unfortunately led to months of disability and rehabilitation, thanks to a one-in-a-million freak accident.

After making a good mount with my imaginary bar, I took a few pedals forward but started to get the wobbles. The unicycle came out forwards but the wheel was tilted left rather than straight ahead, as it would usually. I missed catching the seat and the unicycle clattered down.

Captured in a split second, like a scene out of The Matrix movie, is me in mid-air descending, watching the wheel of the unicyle lodge hard against the side of the house.

The next thing I know, I’m lying on the ground facing away from the house and looking down at my right knee. The first thing I noticed was a graze below the knee and slightly to the right where the unicycle seat had hit me on my way down. The next thing I noticed was my kneecap was about an inch higher up and to the left than it normally was. Naturally, I went with the moment and shifted the kneecap back into place (who wouldn’t), but I could tell the next sequence of events was going to involve a lot of pain….

Sure enough, to cut a long story short, today is Sunday 12 January 2020 and I am sitting up in bed with my leg straight out in a splint and months of rehabilitation in front of me.

The first eight days after the incident were spent lying in a hospital bed, drugged up on painkillers and wondering when I would remember how to poop again. The sole purpose of this purgatory period was to enable the swelling to decrease before they could operate. Finally, on the morning of Monday 30 December, I was wheeled into theatre to repair my fully torn patellar tendon. A good summary of the injury and its treatment is online here. In short, they re-attached the tendon to the leg bone (tibia) and reinforced it with a re-purposed hamstring.

So here I am, feeling ready in my mind to go back to work, but limited by the fact that (a) I can only sit in a wheelchair for about two hours at a time without my foot and ankle becoming swollen and painful, and (b) even after the remaining swelling has gone, it would be a major mission to wheel myself to the bus stop. Oh well, there’s always the option of ordering a taxi, I guess.

As I say, this story is a segue to my new ‘post-incident’ life. It may well take a few months, even up to a year to get back in condition but I’m motivated and enthusiastic. Every day presents new milestones, however basic, and I look forward to surpassing each and moving on to the next. A big part of that is physical milestones, such as stretching various tendons throughout my leg and somehow keeping my cardio fitness. Another is keeping myself occupied – so I’m expecting I’ll write a few more blog posts in the near future….