The care of human life and happiness, said Thomas Jefferson, is the only legitimate object of good government. I agree.

That is why today I will be at the inaugural New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit, hosted by Victoria University of Wellington, where I will be telling people about a website my colleagues and I are about to launch that will scrutinise New Zealand’s performance in reaching the goals.

Jefferson’s words feature in a chapter British economists Richard Layard and Gus O’Donnell contributed to the 2015 World Happiness Report, an annual publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Considering the objective of public policy, Layard and O’Donnell concluded: “What matters is the quality of life, as people themselves experience it. And the best judge of each person’s life is that same person. Is she happy with her life; is she satisfied? In a democracy that should be the criterion for good policy.”

It’s not a giant leap from here to suggest the ultimate purpose of public policy is to improve people’s lives, now and into the future — by enhancing their capabilities and opportunities (i.e. substantive freedoms) to pursue the lives they value. Provided, of course, that in doing so they don’t interfere with the substantive freedoms of others to do the same.

Sustainable Development Goal achievements will be best protected and most enduring if the public keeps asking, “What are we doing about these things?” That’s how the political process works; that’s democracy.

There is a huge and growing body of evidence indicating that, irrespective of culture, history or time, valued lives have some common ingredients.

The OECD’s Better Life Index (BLI) and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide complementary lenses on those ingredients, with the SDGs the ‘treatments’ necessary to achieve the BLI’s key elements of individual wellbeing.

Those elements are housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance.

Meanwhile, the SDGs, adopted in 2015, with New Zealand a signatory, address the following ‘treatments’:

Today’s summit, attended by leaders, influencers, scholars and creative thinkers from across government, business and other sectors, is an opportunity to assess New Zealand’s progress toward the 2030 target set to achieve the SDGs. It is also a chance for those attending to build new partnerships and identify the priorities ahead, while also receiving international insights.

Among more than 15 speakers are Climate Change Minister James Shaw; Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft; Lisa Martin, general manager sustainability at seafood company Sanford; and renowned American economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs.

The aim of the summit is to inform, excite and mobilise.

Because the SDGs and their success are of huge importance to New Zealand and to the world.

While the general population may know less about them than we would like, it is heartening to see increasing engagement among the public sector, business, NGOs, local government and iwi.

Wider awareness is, however, crucial.

SDG achievements will be best protected and most enduring if the public keeps asking, “What are we doing about these things?” That’s how the political process works; that’s democracy. Politicians need to know that if they slip back on the SDGs it’s not just a few people talking, it’s their voters.

Raising awareness is another function of the summit.

It is also one of the functions of a new website I will be talking about during my own summit session.

The website, due to launch in mid-2018, is being developed by Victoria University’s School of Government to hold a mirror up to New Zealand’s SDG progress, both relative to its own history and in comparison with other countries.

The site will draw on and aggregate Statistics New Zealand data in order to produce indicators for the 17 SDGs. Based within the University and overseen by a cross-sector steering group, it will be independent and regularly updated. That independence is essential to avoid any susceptibility to shifting political winds.

Along with holding up a mirror and raising awareness, the site will be a catalyst for SDG conversations, facilitate collaboration for informing and influencing public policy to achieve the goals, and serve as an educational device by prompting and linking to SDG research, publications and conferences.

The Sustainable Development Goals are an opportunity New Zealand — and the world — can’t afford to miss.

Victoria University and other New Zealand tertiary institutions are doing our bit — including through projects like the website; through today’s summit (with Auckland University of Technology represented on our steering group together with Victoria University); and with five of us members of the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

But it is essential others step up too, and that we don’t take our eyes off the prize.

Quality of life — everyone’s life: there’s nothing more important.

As Thomas Jefferson would have told you.

Newsroom will run a Victoria University of Wellington report from the New Zealand Sustainable Development Goals Summit later this week.

Professor Girol Karacaoglu is Head of the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington. He is a former chief economist at the New Zealand Treasury.

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