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Missing in action: the key KPI for government

By Dave Bath - posted Thursday, 3 December 2009

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is an oft-quoted phrase describing rights of persons and therefore the duties of government, yet these are not measured as directly, nor as often, as much more indirect and much less relevant measures of government performance.

Perhaps the best way of assessing government performance quarter by quarter is to provide an indicator of the frequency and depth of depression in the community. We might not be able to measure how successfully everyone in the community is pursuing happiness, but we can certainly measure how many are in the clutches of misery.

Indeed, according to many philosophies, the lack of misery is all a thoughtful human should require, anything else being an inessential "nice-to-have".


If a government is doing its job to perfection, whether through lots of action (if socialists are correct) or near-complete hands-off inaction (if libertarians are correct) then there would be zero incidence of depression that is a reaction to external circumstances, although there would be a small incidence of endogenous depression that would happen to a few unfortunate individuals however pleasant their circumstances. Conversely, if nearly everyone has some degree of depression, even if only mild, and there are no signs of improvement, then any government that has been in power for more than a few months deserves to be ousted for incompetence (or malice).

It is fairly easy to measure depression incidence and depth as a number of good candidate indices exist, some of which can even be self-scored by patients and used as a quick screening tool. These indices can and should also be used as a screening tool for government competence.

One of the many rating scales for depression, the Major Depression Inventory has been designed for consistency with the WHO ICD (World Health Organization International Classification of Diseases, used by health agencies in Australia for reporting) and the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and considered very suitable for epidemiological or population studies - in other words, ready-made to assess a society, and thus the end result of all policies.

How hard can it be for the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) to select a statistically valid sample, collect the results of the Major Depression Inventory, and report them every quarter, a period roughly consistent with the time a person's underlying mood can change? It is surely easier and more reliable than metrics such as "Business Confidence" or "Consumer Confidence", less subject to fudging than the Consumer Price Index that is sensitive to the selection of the items in the basket.

Anything other than a direct measure of depression is but a weak proxy for the lack of human misery, and thus a weak proxy for the effectiveness of policy on making life less awful for citizens.

It is also reasonable to consider indices of population depression as lead indicators, even as lead economic indicators. Depressed workers are less productive. While complicated by the real (and sometimes helpful) phenomenon of "retail therapy", community-wide depression can affect consumer confidence, sales in shops, and housing prices. Stress and depression can affect incidence of domestic violence, drug dependencies, other crimes, and suicide attempts, and thus provide input into forward estimates for health and welfare budgets.


Of course, these other indicators are mere diagnostics of where particular policies are working or failing, they should not be ends in themselves, and anyway, these indices of secondary importance are easily gamed by those in power.

So, given that there are easily collected metrics that are direct indicators of the performance of a government in its basic duties, why does the ABS not report on these more frequently, why do the politicians not include them in media releases as KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), and why should they not receive just as much, if not more prominence in the media as quarterly trade flows, economic activity indices, and the like?

Why when I use Google to look for documents within the ABS mentioning both the words "depression" and "mental" over the last year do I get only a couple of dozen documents returned? Why are the ABS Statistics 4326 and 4327 which relate to National Surveys of Mental Health and Wellbeing (included in the health subdivision of social indicators) only available for 1997 and 2007, even though basic moods of people can change in only a few months? Why do these Mental Health Statistics have such a large focus on indirect indicators (such as divorce rates, etc) rather than have a statistic that concentrates on the direct indicators of misery levels?

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About the Author

Dave Bath is a former single custodial dad (and grandfather since early 2007), has developed software for nearly 30 years (both open source and commercial), has an academic background in biomedical sciences, and has spent much of his commercial IT work in the fields of health, risk management, resourcing and finance. He blogs at Balneus.

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