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Social indicators

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

Social indicators are signposts that help measure progress towards a desired outcome. Indicators are chosen because they measure the outcome of interest directly (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, cigarette 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 in an outcome domain to a few high-level measures. For example, we use four indicators to represent the desired outcomes in the Knowledge and Skills domain. Though the indicators do not describe the state of knowledge and skill acquisition in New Zealand in detail, they provide important summary information on outcomes in that domain (for example, educational attainment of the adult population) or they 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 can be interpreted as progress towards, or a movement away from, the desired outcome. This distinguishes social indicators from some social statistics that cannot be interpreted in this way. For example, while a change in the average age at which New Zealand women give birth to their first child is an important social statistic, it 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 changed regularly
  • grounded in research – there should be sound evidence on key influences and factors affecting outcomes
  • able to be disaggregated – it should be possible to break the data down by age, sex, socio-economic status, ethnicity, region and, where possible, to the individual (or smallest group possible), 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 indicators are providing up-to-date information
  • enable international comparisons – as well as reflecting the social goals of New Zealanders, indicators need to be consistent with those used in international programmes so we can make comparisons.

As some indicators perform well against some criteria and poorly against others, trade-offs are necessary. For example, we base most of the Economic Standard of Living indicators on Household Economic Survey data, rather than on data from the New Zealand Income Survey attached to the Household Labour Force Survey. We do this because it provides a more accurate measure of annual income and hence is a more relevant indicator to the outcome of interest. The trade-off is we are only able to update these indicators every three years, rather than every year, and the sample size is smaller.

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

We use the most recently published data available. This has the advantage of accuracy, as the numbers have been verified, but it means some of the data is two or three years old. Outcomes may have changed in the intervening time due to the impact of policy changes or for other reasons. We provide references to the original sources of all information used.