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Measuring well-being

By Janet Harron

The first Canadian Index of Well-Being (CIW) was recently released and it has a strong connection to work being done in Memorial University's Faculty of Arts.
Dr. Doug May, a professor of economics, is a member of the Canadian Research Advisory Group that has lead responsibility for developing the CIW concept. Dr. May is also director of concept development for the System of Community Accounts for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. The System of Community Accounts is based on a model Dr. May designed in collaboration with the Newfoundland and Labrador Statistics Agency, but he stresses that it is a dedicated team at the agency that make the concept a website reality.

The CIW looks at how Canadians are doing in terms of overall quality of life. As an economist interested in areas of well-being or "welfare economics," Dr. May helped to develop a framework by which the province of Newfoundland and Labrador began to track social progress throughout the province more than a decade ago.

The framework provided evidence-based policy development, a social audit and went beyond the traditional population health model into environmental and community concerns.

The System of Community Accounts became a model of what a set of well-being accounts should look like and has since been adopted for both Nova Scotia (2002) and PEI (2010). However, several other provinces and territories have expressed interest in the system. As well, such diverse groups as the First Nations Statistical Institute and the Australian Bureau of Statistics have viewed the system as an example of measuring what is important to people at the neighbourhood and community level. Essentially, the system has served as a foundation for what has become the Canadian Index of Well-Being.

"Measuring well-being and its domains makes us thoughtfully consider what is important to us in our lives," said Dr. May. "Therefore the CIW helps us to better know ourselves and to document the progress we are making towards our social vision."

Dr. May, whose CIW's advisory group develops specific categories of measures and indicators, collects data and prepares periodic reports, continues to be actively involved with the System of Community Accounts in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We are currently working with various groups in the community of Branch to see if we can look at wider aspects of culture and heritage. It's a bottom up approach – the ground is the community and we go up from there," he said. He explains that the process of a social audit by itself builds community capacity and believes that the benefits go well beyond the economy into such areas as social capital and community building.

"We have a huge advantage in Newfoundland and Labrador in that we have always acted as a community," said Dr. May. "When academics work with not-for-profits and government organizations as a team – we can build something almost unique in the world."