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Regional Comparison

The Big Cities Project



Social indicators

Progress towards the desired outcomes within each domain is measured using a set of social indicators

Social indicators are signposts that help to measure progress towards a desired outcome. Indicators are selected because they either directly measure the outcome of interest (for example, the unemployment rate in the Paid Work domain) or because they are known to be a good predictor of, or are associated with, that outcome (for example, the prevalence of smoking in the Health domain).

The use of social indicators means we can measure trends over time by compressing the sizeable body of statistical information within an outcome domain to a few high-level measures. For example, we use five indicators to represent the desired outcomes in the Knowledge and Skills domain. Though the indicators do not describe in detail the state of knowledge and skill acquisition in New Zealand, they either provide important summary information on outcomes in that domain (for example, educational attainment of the adult population) or act as key predictors of future outcomes (for example, participation in early childhood education).

One of the key features of a social indicator is that any change in an indicator can be interpreted as either progress towards or a movement away from the desired outcome. This distinguishes social indicators from some social statistics that do not lend themselves easily to such an interpretation. For example, a change in the average age at which New Zealand women give birth to their first child, while an important social statistic, cannot be said to be necessarily "good" or "bad" for social wellbeing.

Indicators have been selected against the following criteria, first established in The Social Report 2001:

  • relevant to the social outcome of interest – the indicator should be the most accurate statistic for measuring both the level and extent of change in the social outcome of interest, and it should adequately reflect what it is intended to measure
  • based on broad support – ideally there should be wide support for the indicators chosen so they will not be regularly changed
  • grounded in research – there should be sound evidence on key influences and factors affecting outcomes
  • able to be disaggregated – the data needs to be broken down by age, sex, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and region so we can compare outcomes for different groups
  • consistent over time – the usefulness of indicators is related directly to the ability to track trends over time, so indicators should be consistent over time
  • statistically sound – the measurement of indicators needs to be methodologically rigorous
  • timely – data needs to be collected and reported regularly and frequently to ensure that indicators are reporting up-to-date information
  • allow international comparisons – indicators need to reflect the social goals of New Zealanders but also need to be consistent with those used in international indicator programmes so we can make comparisons.

Inevitably some indicators perform well on some criteria and poorly against others. Trade-offs are necessary as a consequence. For example, we base most of the Economic Standard of Living indicators on Household Economic Survey data, rather than data from the Income Supplement Survey of the Household Labour Force Survey, because it provides a more accurate measure of annual income and is hence a more relevant indicator to the outcome of interest. As a consequence, however, we are only able to update these indicators on a three-yearly rather than an annual basis, and we have to rely on a survey with a smaller sample size.

In some outcome domains, such as in Health, there is an abundance of good data from which to draw appropriate indicators. In other outcome domains, and in particular Physical Environment and Cultural Identity, there is less good-quality, relevant data available, and as a consequence we have had to use fewer indicators in these domains.