Measuring Well-being: Proceedings from a Symposium on Social Indicators
There is a growing interest among governments, the social policy community and academic circles in monitoring social as well as economic progress. As a result, there has been a flurry of activity in Canada to "measure well-being" or to develop "social indicators" which go beyond measurements such as changes in interest rates, inflation or the gross domestic product. The Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD) believes that the development of social indicators is crucial to furthering awareness among Canadians about the impact of political and economic activities. Social indicators should also be an important guide to decision-makers in the public and private sectors.
To further work in this important area, on October 4 and 5, 1996, the CCSD, with the support of Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), organized a symposium on "Measuring Well-being and Social Indicators." This report contains the proceedings from that symposium. The CCSD's goal for the event was to bring together researchers, analysts and practitioners from the private, public and non-profit sectors to move forward the process of developing measures of well-being or social indicators in Canada. Participants came from across Canada, along with several from the U.S. and Europe. At the symposium, participants shared their experiences and ideas, and discussed issues related to methodology, information requirements – especially information gaps where they exist – and possible next steps.
This report documents the major themes, ideas, debates and discussions during the two days of presentations and workshops. The sections are arranged in chronological order, taking the reader through the two days as they occurred. The Executive Summary highlights the main ideas that emerged from the symposium, including the suggested "next steps" or recommendations identified by the participants in the final session. We hope that this symposium, and the insights of the participants as documented in these proceedings, will contribute to the further understanding and improvement of measures of well-being and social indicators in Canada.
Day one consisted of five panel presentations describing international and domestic experiences in social indicator research. Each presentation was followed by questions and comments from the floor.
a) The International Experience
Dr. Heinz-Herbert Noll, Director of Social Indicators Department at ZUMA, the Centre for Survey Research and Methodology, Mannheim, Germany, traced the history of the social indicators movement from its beginning in the 1960s to the present. Today the main role of social indicator research is to measure the development and distribution of welfare, Noll told participants.
Social indicators should be oriented to individuals and social goals, and should measure the outputs, not the inputs, of social programs, said Noll. He then discussed the differences between objective and subjective social indicators. While objective indicators measure how favourable or unfavourable a person's living conditions are compared to normative goals, subjective indicators are based on the premise that welfare is experienced by individual citizens, and is therefore best judged by them. Noll noted that today there is consensus that welfare measurements should be based on both subjective and objective indicators; "well-being" results when good objective living conditions are combined with good subjective well-being.
Noll then addressed recent trends in social reporting, and identified the four main stages of progress in social indicators research: the foundation of the movement; the 1970s' flood of publications, and the establishment of regular social reporting infrastructure for data collection during that time; the stagnation and decreased interest in the field in the late 1970s and early 1980s; and a revival of social indicators research in the 1980s. Today, Noll said, the field of social indicator research "places welfare on the social agenda," by defining problems, providing information for policy decisions, and monitoring programs to determine their success.
Noll concluded by describing the six most relevant trends in social indicators research: reconsideration of the concepts of welfare at a time of significant change in the social context and a widespread "welfare state crisis"; renewed interest in the construction of summary welfare indices; use of longitudinal data and dynamic analysis to provide new perspectives on social change; increased use of comparative information and analysis at a time of increased economic and political integration in Europe and around the world; revival of social accounting and social monitoring to provide an integrated framework for observing and analyzing links between indicators; and, development of prospective social reporting instead of relying exclusively on retrospective reporting.
Beverly Stein, Multnomah County Chair and Chief Executive, Oregon, presented an overview of the Oregon benchmarks experience. She provided a history of the development of the Oregon benchmarks, commenting that the success of Oregon's state-level benchmarks initiative inspired several counties to develop their own benchmark programs.
Stein focused the rest of her presentation on the Multnomah County program, of which she is co-chair. She described the steps taken to set up the program, and how 80 benchmarks were identified and trimmed down to five breakthrough benchmarks. She explained that the project team also developed a vision statement and identified the outcomes of this statement, as well as the core services required to achieve the five "breakthrough" benchmarks. The final step in the process was addressing how to align programs and develop strategies to achieve the benchmarks. Stein concluded by briefly describing the "Oregon Option," an agreement between the Clinton Administration, the state legislature, and the local government to hold state and local governments accountable for their performance.
b) The Canadian Experience
Dr. Ralph Nilson, Dean of the Faculty of Physical Activity Studies, University of Regina, described the Saskatchewan Population Health Research Project (SPHRP), a project currently being developed in Saskatchewan to measure the health and well-being of the population. Because a growing body of research suggests that health is largely determined by factors outside the traditional health care system, Nilson said, SPHRP was designed to investigate the relationship between health and factors outside the traditional health care system which influence health. He explained that the project is based on both a cross-sectoral and longitudinal approach: 11 different government departments, two crown corporations and a team of researchers have collaborated in the project which will initially examine data every two years over a 10-year period. Nilson added that the project defines health as a resource of living that is comprised of four components: physical, mental, social and spiritual.
Armine Yalnizyan, Program Director, Metro Toronto Social Planning Council, described her work in the area of community audits and impact assessment. She focused on five specific questions: Why do audits? Where do you locate the measurement? Who provides the impetus for audits? How do you audit a community? And, What is the outcome (baselines, prototypes, indicators)?
Yalnizyan stated that major changes in the allocation of social spending dollars (i.e. through the Canada Health and Social Transfer [CHST]) and cuts to services at the local level have led to growing interest in community audits. Those in the social policy community wanted a better sense of the impact of these changes "on the ground," she added.
Yalnizyan described the steps involved in performing a community audit and the three types of changes that can be measured: systematic changes, institutional changes, and changes at the grassroots level. She provided overviews of: the Social Planning Council's Board of Directors and several community partners' efforts to create "an inventory of loss," and to establish a model for tracking the impact of current and future funding cuts; the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto and the Social Planning Network of Ontario's efforts at identifying social indicators of well-being to enable local level planning; City and Metro councillors' "agency survey" of social services to determine what was happening on the ground as a result of the cuts; an agency-based review of the Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto; and the Tracking Impacts Coalition, a community information centre that collects and collates data and new research developments.
In short, Yalnizyan said, community audits provide a robust empirical basis for evaluating the impact of funding cuts among individuals, agencies and communities in general. They also provide the opportunity for forging new alliances and partnerships.
Hans Messinger, Assistant Director, Input-Output Division, Statistics Canada and Robert Sauvé, an economist and statistician at Statistics Canada, discussed national accounting and their work on developing Canadian versions of the Fordham Index of Social Health and the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), both originally from the U.S.. These two models provide alternatives to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and take into consideration the fact that as the GDP increases, measures of well-being do not necessarily increase along with it. Messinger and Sauvé described some of the challenges they face in adapting the U.S. models to a Canadian context.
Four workshops were held on the second day to discuss three topics: benchmarks and measures; community audits and impact assessments; and national accounting.
a) Workshop: Benchmarks and Measures
Participants in Workshops A and B, on Benchmarks and Measures, described how they are using or are planning to use social indicators in their work. They identified information gaps and data limitations, discussed the role of social indicators, and suggested next steps for the development of social indicators in Canada.
b) Workshop: Community Audits and Impact Assessments
Participants addressed the issue of terminology, and clarified the differences between benchmarks and indicators, and economic and social indicators. They discussed community audits and impact assessments, focusing on the urgent need for more information-gathering as well as new ways of measuring the impact of cuts to social services at the community level. Workshop participants identified barriers to the development and acceptance of social indicators, and suggested next steps for the development of social indicators in Canada.
c) Workshop: National Accounting – Looking Beyond GDP
Delegates described their work and identified the main or "principal" indicator they use in their field, as well as the social indicator they believe is the most appropriate in measuring the welfare of society. The group then addressed the role of social indicators, identified information gaps and data limitations, as well as barriers to establishing accepted social indicators, and they proposed next steps for the development of social indicators in Canada.
Next Steps / Recommendations
Throughout the course of the workshop sessions and the final plenary, a number of suggestions were put forward for next steps in the development of social indicators in Canada, including:
Develop measures which are relevant at the community level, and conduct further research to better our understanding of "community capacity."
Link social and economic indicators. Demonstrate how the two are interdependent and interrelated.
Popularize, share and communicate existing information.More "inclusive" indicators would help in this task (i.e., use positive social data like school completion rather than the number of drop-outs).
Establish a central information site – both physical and electronic. Use the CCSD Social Indicators Website as a vehicle for gathering, synthesizing and broadcasting existing information.
Get something going immediately; do not wait for the perfect measure.
Publish an annual social indicator report card, and hold an annual symposium and press conference to address the issues identified in the report.
Bring the business community, the Department of Finance, and the general public "on board" once a tangible product has been established.
Continue work at Statistics Canada on composite Canadian social measures and protest the reduction of the existing base of data collection.
Link social indicators or measures of well-being to the discussions about the social union, showing how greater social information can be used as a tool to inform the public, media and policy makers, and can thus lead to greater accountability.
Identify sources of resistance to social indicators, and develop strategies to deal with such resistance.
Measuring Well-Being - Related Material
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