There is a lot of talk from industry and governments about consumer-centred service and policy design, but we often lack the tools we need to do it well. When it comes to the expectations and experiences of Australian consumers on the things that really matter, we don’t have up-to-date and independent data that is gathered across all sectors.

More consumers switching energy, insurance and mobile phone companies has long been a ‘go-to’ traditional market performance indicator. But if we’re simply switching to products and services that make us worse off due to the fine print, hidden sponsorship deals, or lack of ability to meaningfully compare, shouldn’t we be looking closer?

Research conducted by the Consumer Policy Research Centre this year has told us that Australian consumers feel frustrated, anxious and fatigued with their interactions with businesses. People are feeling overwhelmed by the pressure of ‘making the right choice’ in the era of choice overload, and when mental health issues are at an all-time high.

It’s no wonder people are anxious about about making the wrong choice either. When things go wrong or consumers need help, they struggle to get the support they need. The latest data we have on the cost to Australian consumers trying to resolve problems when things go wrong was a whopping $16.31 billion each year, and that was back in 2016!

With the explosion of online shopping, our research is saying it’s more difficult than ever for consumers to return goods and raise a complaint with digital suppliers.

Poor quality and service has a cost – both in direct monetary terms, and the opportunity costs of not being able to spend time of other more meaningful things. It’s also clearly having an impact on stress levels, with a growing number of people that tell us they’re feeling like they’ve been ‘reduced to a number’.

Current approaches to measuring market performance often examines known historical problems or look at what is going on in individual sectors. We don’t really have any way to comprehensively explore consumer behaviour and experiences in a more meaningful and holistic way.

As the country’s only consumer-focused think tank, we want to change that. We want to approach consumer policy from the perspective of promoting and understanding the things that people tell us materially enhance their lives – things like safety, fair treatment, and accessibility.

Momentum is growing globally and locally behind a wellbeing approach to public policy. New Zealand, Scotland, Iceland and Wales Governments area partnering to develop wellbeing economies acknowledging the need to promote development that improves human and ecological wellbeing. In Australia, the New Economy Network Australia just completed its sixth annual conference bringing together experts focused on transforming Australia’s economic system.

Economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have long highlighted the limitations of a narrow focus on traditional measures of economic growth such as GDP in policy development ‘If we want to put people first, we have to know what matters to them, what improves their wellbeing and how we can supply more of whatever that is.’

Back in 2012 the Australian Commonwealth Department of Treasury produced an initial wellbeing framework, with a focus on ‘primarily reflecting a person’s substantive freedom to lead a life they have reason to value. … that it is individuals who count and what they value in life that matters.’

A wellbeing approach starts with listening carefully to what people are telling us about their experiences. It identifies what improves wellbeing in reality, not just theory, and then implementing change. Too often it’s the other way around: a theoretical response is implemented, we don’t track the real impact, and when things aren’t working, we start the process all over again.

Regularly measuring and reporting on lived experiences will lead to better designed systems, policies and practices. Business conduct – and policies that shape it – has an impact on the wellbeing of consumers and the community. This information will be valuable to businesses wanting to do the right thing, to governments when designing policies, and the broader community when released in the public interest.

In 2022 the Consumer Policy Research Centre will be examining ways we can report on more meaningful data through a new Consumer Index.

We can create markets that work better for people. Business and government can do this with the right data about our lives and experiences.