Two sides of the same coin: New Zealand’s 2021 ‘recovery’ and ‘wellbeing’ Budget

By Hannah Ormston, Ben Thurman and Jen Wallace from the Carnegie UK Trust

In 2019, New Zealand made headlines around the world when their government signalled a genuine commitment to improving New Zealanders collective wellbeing through their annual budget. Applauded for being “transformational” and a “world first”, the NZ Treasury outlined their ambitions to measure progress beyond economic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product. These indicators failed to capture the complexity of individual lives and, as NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, “do not guarantee improvement to living standards” or “take into account who benefits and who is left out”.

Yet, as New Zealand announces its spending priorities for the next year, some have expressed disappointment, criticising the government’s lack of progress as well as a diminishing focus on wellbeing for which the NZ budget has become so well known.  But are these claims missing the point: that in New Zealand the concept of wellbeing has shifted from something novel, to an approach that’s now embedded within the day- to-day decision making of government?

What makes a ‘wellbeing’ budget?

In his pre-budget speech, Finance Minister Grant Robertson outlined the three main goals for this term of government: continuing to keep New Zealand safe from Covid-19, accelerating recovery, and taking on the generational challenges with the economy and society: in particular focusing on housing affordability, climate change, and children’s wellbeing. These are undoubtedly wellbeing goals. 

Sitting within a wider financial strategy, the ‘wellbeing’ specific component of the NZ budget consists of an allocated sum of money set aside to focus on prevention and improving collective wellbeing outcomes; policies and projects that better meet the needs of generations today, whilst also considering the long-term impact on generations to come. Spending from this ‘wellbeing pot’ is informed by a range of data that’s collected in a purpose built framework: the Living Standards Framework. It includes 12 areas of life that the government believe are critical for wellbeing, such as health; housing; social connections; and cultural identity.

Each year, the NZ Treasury uses the data in the Living Standards Framework to understand the issues that pose the biggest threat to wellbeing and inform decisions about where they should spend these funds. A wellbeing government understands that social, environmental, economic and democratic wellbeing have equal importance, and responds flexibly, by directing spending to the most urgent issues. In 2019, they chose to focus on improving mental health, child poverty, and family violence, while in 2020, their focus pivoted to the rapidly changing impact of COVID-19, and its immediate impact on people and communities. 

This year, the NZ government’s continued commitment to a wellbeing approach can be seen through the recent amendment to their Public Finance Act.  The Act now makes provision for the Minister of Finance to set wellbeing objectives to guide budget decisions. For the 2021 budget, the NZ Treasury has decided to focus its attention on the following objectives:

1. Securing a Just Transition to shift to a lower emission economy;

2. Enhancing productivity and enabling New Zealanders to benefit from the future of work;

3. Improving social and economic outcomes within Maori and pacific incomes, skills and opportunities;

4.  Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing; and

5.  Supporting physical and mental wellbeing for all, including keeping COVID-19 out of communities.

When assessing new policy and project proposals, their contribution to each of the above priorities is considered alongside their value for money, which is based on an assessment of their contribution to the wellbeing domains in the Living Standards Framework.

The priorities outlined in the 2021 recovery and wellbeing budget far from suggest a ‘move away’ from wellbeing. Rather, they show that their approach is holistic, and balances the health, wealth, and wellbeing of current and future generations in equal measure. It demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the complexity of individual and collective lives, and that recovery from COVID-19 and collective wellbeing are not mutually exclusive.

What are the lessons from the NZ approach?

But what can other countries learn from New Zealand’s approach, and what are the opportunities to build on, wherever you are? New Zealand is one of several Wellbeing Economy Governments who have a shared understanding – and ambition – to build sustainable wellbeing economies which include Scotland and Wales. The National Performance Framework in Scotland, and the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 each place a strong emphasis on prevention, intervention, integration and localism, similar to the NZ model. 

And while 20 May marks the next wellbeing budget announcement in New Zealand, in the UK, exciting new legislation, which shares the ambition to embed wellbeing in policymaking for current and future generations, will receive its first reading in the new parliamentary session in the House of Lords. At the Carnegie UK Trust, we work to improve the wellbeing of people in the UK and Ireland, recently publishing ‘Gross Domestic Wellbeing’ as an alternative measure of social progress in England: so we’re clear that ensuring we all have what we need to live well now, and in the future, should be the ambition of any government. This could be an important moment as the UK takes its first steps towards doing just that. 

References: 

Wallace, Ormston, Thurman et. al 2020. Gross Domestic Wellbeing: an alternative measure of social progress. 

Photo by Gigin Krishnan on Unsplash

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