Originally published at The Mandarin.
Last night, treasurer Jim Chalmers cautiously set Australia on its wellbeing economy journey. This government’s first Budget sat against a backdrop of inflationary pressures, global conflict, gloomy outlooks, floods and cost of living pressures.
Behind front page headlines today is something potentially much more interesting, exciting and profound. Steps towards a more complete idea of what’s important included a Women’s Budget statement, a commitment to an Indigenous truth-telling process, funding for improved aged care services, as well as increases in parental leave and increased access to childcare.
However, a framework is yet to be developed that will result in the kind of system change needed to reorient the economy for the long term. The treasurer’s catchphrase has been “measuring what matters”, and this Budget takes the smallest of steps towards augmenting legacy economic aggregates with more precise data that gives a fuller picture of Australians’ quality of life.
Measurement is important, but it’s a means rather than an end. It must build a thorough understanding of what’s really important in people’s lives, what’s important for the future. Then we shape the economy in service of those goals — as the PM said in his acceptance speech, “an economy that works for people”.
Neither the treasurer nor the Treasury has rushed into deciding or dictating what a wellbeing economy is or how to achieve one. This is a good thing. Measuring and managing what matters relies on knowing with some certainty what matters to who, and where.
Treasury has announced an initial consultation that will attract submissions from all the usual suspects: think tanks, academics, unions, social services, and other charity organisations and businesses with a vested interest. Alone, that approach will not yield a genuine understanding of what ‘wellbeing’ means to Australians in all their geographic, social and demographic diversity, nor how they wish to preserve the environment to sustain future generations.
This needs direct dialogue with communities, intentionally seeking out those who would not normally put themselves forward. The ACT has already conducted such a process, as have countries such as Wales in the development of their wellbeing frameworks. This has formed the basis of the ACT’s well-developed wellbeing framework. Tasmania also has a child-wellbeing strategy and is in the process of developing a broader wellbeing framework, NSW has outcomes-based budgeting and a foundation paper for a Wellbeing Budget process. A federal approach should complement these and learn from them.
For a wellbeing approach to really make a difference, a profound but underappreciated change will need to occur within the public service. To design, deliver and assess policies that genuinely respond to wellbeing, agencies must do more than apply measurement frameworks.
If this all sounds abstract, let’s take a look at the employment services system.
There is widespread agreement between service providers, policy researchers, public officials and advocates that the privatised employment services market is failing those who most need support. Voices from business, civil society, unions, advocates and religious groups have called for unemployment payments to be lifted to a level that enables people to at least afford the basics of food, housing, healthcare and transport.
The employment services system was contracted out to private providers, and the incentives in this market reflected a narrow idea of what constituted value. The market responded to this design, prioritising the high-margin activity of providing services as often as possible to those who needed them least, and neglecting the needs of the people who would most benefit from support in finding employment.
The result has been a years-long crescendo of dysfunction, amplified by a punitively low unemployment benefit that leaves recipients below the poverty line. The measurements applied to service provision assessed them in dollars spent per job filled, neglecting both the social purpose of the service system, and the needs of the people using it.
Wellbeing cannot simply be something that legacy policies are measured and iterated by. It must be an explicit goal of policy design. To deliver genuine changes in policy approaches, cultural and practical change must be more deeply embedded in government, to capture the entire policy cycle.
A wellbeing approach would examine the causes of unemployment and seek to remedy them, whether these are skills mismatches, not enough jobs in particular locations, entrenched poverty or a failing education system. There would then be place-based targeted interventions to address those issues in a way that meets community needs. We would also take a hard look at the sort of businesses that are emerging and the quality of jobs they offer.
Wellbeing demands departments and agencies become active players in service delivery, and community partners in discovering and meeting local needs — changing what matters. This goes to the heart of how public officials work, both with one another and with partners across society. It demands we become more active in our dialogues with communities, more open in our collaborations with one another, more ambitious in our development of internal capabilities and more holistic in the way that we serve and advance the needs of the Australian public.