Part 3: The Treasury's approach to reporting New Zealand's well-being

Commentary on Te Tai Waiora: Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

There are numerous reports about national well-being. The reports we looked at show that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to explaining and reporting on national well-being. However, the reports share themes and connections that can help us consider what is important in explaining and presenting a nation's well-being.

In this Part, we:

The Treasury's perspective on well-being

Well-being can be thought about from a philosophical, psychological, or economic perspective. The Treasury draws mainly on economic concepts to frame its thinking about "what it means for our lives to go well" as a nation. This frame is the Living Standards Framework. The Treasury also uses another framework, He Ara Waiora, to understand a Māori perspective on well-being. For the Treasury, using the two frameworks recognises that there is no single agreed way of thinking about well-being.

The Treasury's approach to the Living Standards Framework has changed over time. There have been three previous versions of the Living Standards Framework, which have changed in response to emerging research and literature (including the Treasury's own research) and engaging with New Zealanders. The Treasury also learned from other well-being initiatives, such as the Waikato Wellbeing Project.

In 2021, the Treasury released the latest version of the Living Standards Framework. It explains New Zealand's well-being by looking at:

  • What matters to us as individuals, families, whānau, and communities: Twelve areas (called "domains") seek to capture the most important resources and aspects of our lives.
  • What can help safeguard our well-being: Six categories of institutions and governance structures play a role in safeguarding and building the well-being of individuals and nations.
  • What can help maintain our well-being over time: Five aspects of wealth (or resources) that help maintain and sustain well-being.

Figure 1 is the Treasury's summary of the Living Standards Framework. It shows the three levels of our nation's well-being and their underlying domains and categories. Figure 1 also highlights the importance of understanding the distribution, productivity (or efficiency), resilience, and sustainability of the individual elements.

Figure 1
The Treasury's Living Standards Framework

Figure 1: The Treasury's Living Standards Framework

Source: The Treasury (2022), Te Tai Waiora: Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

To help measure and analyse the progress of well-being, the Treasury developed a dashboard of indicators that are consistent with the Living Standards Framework. The dashboard includes time-series analysis and distributions throughout population groups (such as by gender, ethnicity, and region).

The Treasury gets many of these indicators from Statistics New Zealand's Indicators Aotearoa New Zealand database and surveys, such as the New Zealand Health Survey and the General Social Survey.

In 2019, the Treasury sought public feedback on some indicators as part of a general data update. The Treasury also consulted with experts and other agencies as it further developed the Living Standards Framework in 2021.27

Other perspectives on well-being that the Treasury uses

To complement the Living Standards Framework, and to better understand Māori well-being, the Treasury uses another framework called He Ara Waiora. Waiora, meaning health or soundness, often refers to a Māori perspective on well-being. According to the Treasury, He Ara Waiora is a holistic intergenerational approach to well-being that is derived from mātauranga Māori.

The Treasury developed He Ara Waiora through a process of engaging with iwi and Māori across New Zealand and through an ongoing partnership with expert Māori thought leaders, collectively referred to as Ngā Pūkenga.

He Ara Waiora offers a comprehensive view of well-being and differs from the Living Standards Framework in many important ways. For example, the interconnections between domains of well-being (called "ends") begin with wairua (spirit) as the foundational source of well-being, which flows through to te taiao (the natural world), then on to te ira tangata (the human domain).

He Ara Waiora also presents a set of values (called "means") for achieving the domains of well-being. These values embrace te ao Māori principles and include kotahitanga (unity), tikanga (Māori customs and values), whanaungatanga (a sense of connection), manaakitanga (hospitality), and tiakitanga (stewardship).

Figure 2 summarises He Ara Waiora as a diagram.28

Figure 2
He Ara Waiora: A Māori framework of well-being

Figure 2: He Ara Waiora: A Māori framework of well-being

Source: The Treasury (2022), Te Tai Waiora: Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Te Tai Waiora also has a strong focus on Pacific people's well-being. A background paper to Te Tai Waiora considers Pacific perspectives on the Living Standards Framework and well-being (see the Appendix). Key messages from this background paper were used in Te Tai Waiora.

The paper states that any framework for describing and understanding Pacific people's well-being must place family as the dominant relationship. Culture also plays a key role in the well-being of Pacific people.

The Treasury told us that its work on Māori and Pacific people's well-being drew heavily on previously published papers, including a 2019 background paper on the development and content of He Ara Waiora and the Pacific Aotearoa Lalanga Fou report from 2018.29,30

The objectives for preparing Te Tai Waiora

The Public Finance Act clearly states what is needed in a well-being report. However, the Act does not specify how this information should be reported on or used.

Te Tai Waiora includes a discussion of its purpose, but this is mainly about what information the report includes. The Secretary to the Treasury's foreword provides a more useful statement of the purpose of Te Tai Waiora, which is to inform choices about economic decisions and the government's competing priorities.

Using well-being reports to help inform economic decision-making and government budgeting is important. However, in our view, this is not enough to achieve the overall objective of building a broader understanding of well-being and using this understanding across the government. It is also not enough to recognise the role of Te Tai Waiora as a stewardship report.

To consider what else might be needed, we looked at what Te Tai Waiora and other relevant background documents and speeches said about the well-being report and its potential use. In our view, Te Tai Waiora needs to have three main objectives if it is to help achieve a broad understanding of well-being and build its use across government:

  • Provide a comprehensive, balanced, and accessible view of the state of well-being in New Zealand.
  • Inform government policy and investment priorities, including through the Budget.
  • Support public understanding, discussion, and comment.

The third objective reflects the Treasury's ambition for Te Tai Waiora to encourage robust public discussion, debate, and feedback. The third objective also recognises Te Tai Waiora as one of the Treasury's suite of stewardship reports. This should help support the government and its Ministers to act as stewards of the public interest and to support the public's trust and confidence in the government.

Te Tai Waiora as a stewardship report

Te Tai Waiora is one of several stewardship reports that provide the insights and foresights the government needs to act as a long-term steward of the public interest. Other stewardship reports by the Treasury include:

  • He Tirohanga Mokopuna 2021: The Treasury's combined Statement on the Long-term Fiscal Position and Long-term Insights Briefing; and
  • He Puna Hao Pātiki: 2022 Investment Statement.

Stewardship reports provide the government with the information it needs to identify future opportunities and challenges, evaluate their implications, and plan for them. Stewardship reports also help demonstrate public accountability and build public trust: "Robust accountability entails, among other things, the effective exercise of foresight, insight and oversight".31 In our view, all stewardship reports should be seen as trusted and meaningful sources of information about what matters to New Zealanders.

The Treasury views Te Tai Waiora as playing a crucial role in supporting and informing other stewardship reports about what matters to New Zealanders. For example, it can identify important challenges or opportunities, and other reports can analyse the implications of these further.

The potential value of a stewardship report that provides information about New Zealand's state of well-being and the risks to its future sustainability cannot be overestimated. However, whether that potential will be realised remains uncertain. One important factor will be the ability of Te Tai Waiora to be widely understood and used.

A brief overview of Te Tai Waiora

Te Tai Waiora has a clear connection to one of the Treasury's four strategic outcomes, which is to ensure sustainable public finances that support intergenerational well-being.

The Treasury's Economic Strategy, Economic Capability, and Analytics and Insights teams prepared Te Tai Waiora. The Treasury started work on Te Tai Waiora in May 2021 after a planned update of the Living Standards Framework. Three approaches were considered in deciding how to prepare the report. These were:

  • simply describing the state of well-being, past trends, and any risks to its sustainability, with little analysis other than what had already been done;
  • a more in-depth analytical approach that builds on the description of well-being and provides a deeper analysis of, for example, its drivers, issues of inequity and inequality, and its distribution throughout population groups; or
  • an approach that broadens the analysis of well-being by also considering other perspectives about what is important by engaging and collaborating more with a wide range of stakeholders, communities, and the public.

The Treasury took the second, more analytical, approach to preparing Te Tai Waiora.

The Treasury told us there were many reasons why it chose the more in-depth analytical approach. The approach is consistent with legislative requirements, there is a strong focus on building an evidence base for future well-being reports and new policy-relevant analysis, and it demonstrates the Treasury's commitment to taking well-being seriously by investing in its intellectual capability.

The Treasury's intention for the report was to help inform the government's investment priorities and funding decisions. The Treasury considered that the report's primary audience would be policy advisors, public sector leaders, academics, and other experts.

Consistent with this analytical approach, the Treasury also published various background papers to accompany Te Tai Waiora. These provided more in-depth information and analysis on topics relevant to the report. See the Appendix for a list of these background papers and a short description of what they contain.

To further support Te Tai Waiora, the Treasury drew on a wide variety of evidence from other research into well-being, its engagement with other public organisations, other departments' public surveys, and its own analysis. Because the public had already been engaged in the development of the Living Standards Framework and dashboard, the Treasury consulted, in a targeted way, with subject-matter and policy experts from within and outside of the Treasury for Te Tai Waiora.

For example, the Treasury:

  • sought the advice of public and private sector organisations such as the Social Wellbeing Agency, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, and the Office of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor;
  • held roundtable discussions with the Victoria University of Wellington School of Government and other experts, and sponsored and edited the August 2022 issue of Policy Quarterly, with a well-being economics theme; and
  • spoke with Ngā Pūkenga (Māori thought leaders who advise the Treasury) and interviewed selected rangatira from throughout the country.

The Treasury also tested the findings from its analysis of well-being internally and with other groups. These included the Economic Chief Executives Group,32 the Social Wellbeing Board, and the Chief Science Advisors Forum. The Treasury also set up an expert advisory panel to review and challenge the final well-being report.

An important part of the Treasury's engagement strategy was running a series of open webinars on topics such as subjective well-being, well-being approaches to policy, and building well-being resilience. A range of international and New Zealand speakers were invited. They brought different perspectives and insights on well-being. The Treasury told us that this provided a source of intellectual stimulation and fostered debate in the Treasury and across the wider public sector.

Overall, there were 18 seminars, with 12 international speakers and nine domestic well-being experts. The well-being seminar series was very well received – 3280 participants took part in the events, either in-person or online.

The Treasury promoted Te Tai Waiora well in all forms of media and through speeches, newsletters, and interviews (for example, with Radio New Zealand). The Treasury's media analysis shows that 57 stories in the traditional media (radio, television, and newspapers) were about or referred to Te Tai Waiora or the background papers from May 2022 to May 2023.

On the Treasury's website, people viewed Te Tai Waiora or downloaded a PDF of the report 5767 times in the six-month period following its publication. This was higher than other Treasury stewardship reports over the same period.

The Treasury observed that, although the immediate media coverage was relatively muted, many of the key findings had already been published. In its view, the media was using the report as a long-term information resource.

The Treasury is currently carrying out a post-publication review, and it will use the review's findings to inform future reports.

The following are the main messages from Te Tai Waiora:

  • Life in Aotearoa New Zealand has improved in many ways over the past 20 years.
  • Compared to other OECD countries, Aotearoa New Zealand is a good place to live in many ways.
  • Compared to other OECD countries, Aotearoa New Zealand is generally a good place to live for most older people.
  • Aotearoa New Zealand performs less well on well-being for children and young people – particularly in areas such as literacy, numeracy, and mental health.
  • Our rental housing is among the least affordable in the OECD.
  • Māori have had an especially rapid increase in rates of psychological distress, high levels of discrimination, and low trust in government institutions.
  • Pacific peoples' well-being is lower than the national average in many other areas, with poor housing and low incomes for Pacific peoples being two standout issues.
  • In many respects, well-being has held up in recent years despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Although New Zealand has high natural capital, aspects of the natural environment are deteriorating.
  • Sustaining well-being will depend on our society's ability to adapt to a lower-carbon economy and a warmer global climate.

27: The Treasury (2021) "The Living Standards Framework 2021", page 22.

28: For a description of the ends and means, see the Treasury (2021), He Ara Waiora – brief overview, at

29: McMeeking, S, Kahi, H, and Kururangi, G (2019), He Ara Waiora: Background paper on the development and content of He Ara Waiora, University of Canterbury Research Repository.

30: Ministry for Pacific Peoples (2018), Pacific Aotearoa Lalanga Fou.

31: Boston, J, Bagnall, D, and Barry, A (2019), Foresight, insight and oversight: Enhancing long-term governance through better parliamentary scrutiny, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, page 20.

32: The Economic Chief Executives Group includes chief executives of the Treasury, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Zealand Customs Service, Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Education, Statistics New Zealand, Inland Revenue, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Tertiary Education Commission, and the Ministry for the Environment.