People walk and play sports in a park in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo: Jenny Trevelyan/IMF)

People walk and play sports in a park in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo: Jenny Trevelyan/IMF)

New Zealand: Changing the Conversation on Well-Being

January 26, 2022

This article first appeared in the most recent issue of Finance & Development.

In 2019, New Zealand’s Labor government, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, unveiled a budget aimed at tackling some of the long-term challenges the country faces in areas such as domestic violence, child poverty, and housing.

The so-called Wellbeing Budget 2019 set out to prioritize five key areas: mental health, child well-being, supporting the aspirations of the Māori and Pasifika populations, building a productive nation, and transforming the economy. It unveiled billions for mental health services and child poverty as well as record investment in measures to tackle family violence.

New Zealand, a nation of 5 million people, performs well in many measures of well-being relative to most other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. But it is also among the worst for family and sexual violence, and child poverty is also a challenge. In 2020, up to 210,500 children lived in poverty (18.4 percent), according to New Zealand’s statistics agency.

A fundamental aspect of the country’s well-being approach is the recognition that all aspects of what constitutes a good life must be considered holistically, whether it’s access to health care and education or a strong sense of connection to  one’s community.

“The good news is that the conversation has changed,” says Girol Karacaoglu, former chief economist at the New Zealand Treasury and now head of the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington. He is also the author of the book Love You: Public Policy for Intergenerational Wellbeing.

“There’s a realization that we need to worry about other things than income. New Zealand has taken this very seriously, and Budget 2019 is a good example of that.” The budget acknowledged that health and the economy go hand in hand. Kirk Hope, chief executive of BusinessNZ, sees this as a positive step.

“A lot of the investment is going into the health system. We need to get good outcomes for those investments. Well-being is critical to business. You won’t have a very productive workforce without it.”

Measuring outcomes

At the same time, a number of experts are saying that more work is needed to measure outcomes and empower communities. 

“Process matters critically in achieving desired well-being outcomes—and the most important shift in process is the requirement to give communities more voice and resources to drive change,” says Karacaoglu.

“The types of issues we are dealing with cannot be sorted out from the center—the center needs to play a listening and supporting role.”

The shift toward a more holistic approach means a shift in the way government works on these issues and measures outcomes. A lot of work has to go into this process, and it takes time, says Dominick Stephens, Treasury’s current chief economist.

“We’re thinking more holistically about how to deliver better outcomes for people. But we’re also continuing to build our understanding of well-being. This is hard.” 

Emily Mason, who has worked 20 years in social policy and runs a Wellington consulting firm called Frank Advice, says the measurement tools are there but the government isn’t making use of them. 

“Well-being as a concept is the right one but you need measures and decision-making infrastructure to make it work. You need the wisdom of community and of what has gone before, and to link that to data measurement, looking at each individual over the course of their lifetime. At its heart, well-being is an individual thing.”

“We have that statistical ability, but we’re not making full use of it.”

Among other things, the budget included an investment of $NZ 1.9 billion in mental health and a particular focus on reducing child poverty, an area close to the prime minister’s heart.

Shaun Robinson, head of the New Zealand Mental Health Foundation, says a lot more needs to be done to deliver much-needed improvements in mental health. But the government is taking positive steps, including the introduction of early support services for mental health at GP practices and community centers.

“What we’re not doing is giving people the tools to take care of their own well-being and that of the people around them,” he says, adding that a recently unveiled 10-year mental health strategy does acknowledge this point and is a step in the right direction.  

The pandemic’s impact

While some say the results of the well-being budget are yet to be seen, they also recognize the impact of the pandemic.

“Since 2019, the government has been consistent in its goals in subsequent budgets, despite being hugely challenged by COVID-19,” says Karacaoglu.

Maree Brown, director of the Child Wellbeing Unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, says COVID-19 “upped the ante. …The Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy already had a strong focus on joined up responses to improve the well-being of children and young people with greater needs. COVID meant we had to redouble those efforts.”

The strategy, launched in August 2019, sets out a shared understanding of what young New Zealanders said they want and need for a strong sense of well-being, what the government is doing, and how others can help, Brown says. 

She says local pandemic responses demonstrated the strengths that reside in communities—strengths the government should tap into.

“In the past, we’ve tended to design too many initiatives from the center. Increasingly, there’s a move to devolve resources and decision-making, to co-design with families and community stakeholders, and to resource Māori and other providers to develop solutions that work for their communities.”

“It’s a work in progress but absolutely the right direction to be moving in.” 


ANNA JAQUIERY is a freelance editor and writer in Wellington, New Zealand.

Read the entire Winter 2021 health issue of Finance & Development.