Auditor-General's overview

Using the United Nations' Madrid indicators to better understand our ageing population.

The structure of New Zealand's population is changing in different ways, but the main change is that it is ageing. In 2006, there were two children for every older person. In 2023 – only 10 years from now – we could have more people aged 65 or older than we have children under 15.

Some regions will have older populations and age more quickly than others. When an increasing proportion of the population is on a fixed income, local authorities with the oldest populations are more likely to be the first to face challenges in paying for community services and maintaining, repairing, and replacing infrastructure.

One way or another, many public resources will be committed to responding to our ageing population. This is important for everybody. We expect that governments will spend more on superannuation, healthcare, and social support care (such as home-based support services and aged residential care). Spending on other services might decrease. The Treasury has considered the effect of New Zealand's ageing population on the country's financial sustainability in its 2013 report Affording Our Future: Statement on New Zealand's Long-term Fiscal Position. My Office's report on the Treasury's Statement is available on our website:

There are many uncertainties about the effects of a changing population structure on individuals and on society as a whole. Having the right kind of data available is one component in being prepared for the future. Accurate, relevant data can be used to identify improvements or adverse consequences as the result of changes in society and in government policy, and can help support accountable and transparent decision-making.

New Zealand is not alone in having an ageing population, and worldwide ageing has been a focus of the United Nations. We found an international benchmark in the indicators that the United Nations uses to assess progress in putting into effect the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (the Madrid indicators).

Because a report on the Madrid indicators had not previously been brought together for New Zealand, we decided to examine whether the data for each of the indicators showed improvements for older people over time. We have published our findings for each indicator online as they became available.

I hope that this report will stimulate discussion and action among public entities, parliamentarians, and the public.

What the Madrid indicators showed

My staff found that the data needed to report on most of the Madrid indicators was available and was mostly collected and reported by public entities. This means that public entities have, at least, a minimum set of demographic data and data about older people that they can use.

The Madrid indicators include instrumental indicators that we call "building blocks". Most of the building blocks, such as policies and plans that address older people's needs for transport and health, were in place. The rest of the Madrid indicators are outcome indicators and data for most of these was available.

Sometimes data can look useful until you try to use it. We wanted to identify whether older people's circumstances had improved over time. If we were able to produce a profile of the older population, it would tell us something about the data, and the results might be used for future comparisons. In publishing our findings online, we were able to bring together data from a range of sources to produce a profile of older people's circumstances. Although there have been many improvements over time, older people did not experience these improvements evenly. Women, Pākehā, and people on higher incomes often (but not always) benefited more than men, non-Pākehā, and people on lower incomes.

Some public entities had clearly given much thought to making their data accessible to audiences with less expertise in dealing with data. In this report, we identify the helpful data collection and reporting practices that we encountered. I encourage more public entities to adopt these practices where they can to improve accessibility and consistency. I agree with the Health Quality and Safety Commission, which told us that entities' data collection and reporting practices should be helpful and responsive to public needs.

My staff found some common themes to do with collecting and reporting data that we would like public entities to consider. For example, it would help if public entities report data using consistent age groups, gave reasons for when data is updated, and considered how they might measure whether older people living in rural areas are disadvantaged in accessing public services.

The way we worked

During this project, my staff progressively published the findings online to make the results available more quickly and to increase the transparency of our work. In some cases, we updated them when we got new information. I am interested in getting comments on this approach and whether we should do this more often.

I want to thank staff in the public entities that published data or gave it to my staff, and helped with interpreting it. I especially thank our main contacts and other staff from the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Social Development, and Statistics New Zealand, who worked on many of the indicators. Statistics New Zealand also provided thoughtful technical feedback on our draft report.

Signature - LP

Lyn Provost
Controller and Auditor-General

10 October 2013

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