Since Roman times, counting people has been part of governance—though it’s since gotten more complicated.
Recently, a political battle erupted in the US over a question about citizenship, proposed for the next national census. A few years ago, Canadian pundits were in an uproar when our country’s census briefly became voluntary. Government surveys may seem like bureaucratic bean-counting, but census data is used to deploy public services and determine political representation. Citizens get upset when the tallies seem threatened because, as the saying goes, What gets measured gets done.
Is Canada counting the right things?
On the Statistics Canada web site, you can find reports covering everything from household income levels to the national production and export of asphalt roofing. While there are niche numbers for almost every issue, there are no broad-ranging studies about the well-being of Canadians. With younger generations facing increased risk of mental illness, it’s time to tackle underlying causes. For that, we need to measure them.
In April, Statistics Canada wound up its consultation process for shaping the next national census, to take place in 2021. There will be the usual sections on demographics, employment and housing. A new question has been proposed, to ask Canadians how they feel about their general health. It’s a good start, but we need to dive deeper. A question about income level, for instance, could be followed with one about whether that income is enough for the respondent to feel secure.
Some private research firms do conduct small-scale polls, asking Canadians how happy they feel. But I’m stunned that our government doesn’t measure our well-being. Questions such as, ‘Do you feel your life is getting better or worse?’ could be some of the best barometers for a whole range of indicators like mental and physical health, job security, cost of living, and quality of life. Answers would inform mental heath services and awareness campaigns, as well as policies to ensure funding.
Though these feelings are subjective, they are measurable. We know because other countries measure them.
In June, New Zealand’s federal budget announcement made international headlines for its primary focus—boosting the happiness and well-being of its people. Notably, the country is investing over one billion dollars in mental health.
New Zealand has a much better chance of achieving its goals because it’s actively measuring factors that relate to human well-being. Not just objective statistics like the number of doctors, but perceptions from citizens about personal safety, satisfaction with leisure time, engagement in cultural activities, and loneliness. With that information, the government can engage in preventative, community-level interventions that will tackle issues before they become crises.
New Zealand isn’t the first to take this approach. Bhutan pioneered the ‘Gross National Happiness’ index years ago. Since 2008, the tiny Asian nation has conducted several census-like surveys of the population that track 33 different indicators including health, cultural diversity, living standards, and psychological well-being.
If we want a strong and healthy country, we need to measure all the factors that contribute to well-being. Because what gets measured gets done.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.