Taking the Pulse of the Nation

Taking the Pulse of the Nation, or TTPN, is the brainchildof a team of university researchers who wanted to help Australians understand how COVID-19 was affecting their lives from an economic and social perspective.

This TTPN team at Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research (Melbourne Institute) used their substantive and analytical knowledge to establish a survey that would—as the name suggests—take the pulse of the nation. As the Pandemic set in, this team worked hard to develop a range of questions that would help the population better understand how lockdowns, fears of getting COVID-19, government policies, and working (or studying) from home was impacting our nation.

“We’re the folks that run the HILDA survey,” Melbourne Institute Director and Ronald Henderson Professor A. Abigail Payne says, “But the HILDA survey runs once a year.”

“In March 2020, everyone was thinking about the health consequences of COVID-19. ‘Who's getting it? Do you need to isolate? How do you protect yourself?’ But nobody was honing in on the other [social, behavioural, economic] impacts of COVID-19.”

By the start of April 2020, Professor Payne turned to several senior researchers at the Melbourne Institute and said: “Let's start measuring what is happening here.” And the concept for Taking the Pulse of the Nation was born.

Woman smiling
Professor A. Abigail Payne

The survey itself is simple – asking approximately six questions, which can be answered in under 20 minutes. The questions centre around financial stress, mental distress, and satisfaction with government policies such as JobKeeper. These responses coupled with information about the gender, family composition, and employment situation of the respondents provided insights that supported a better framing of the national conversation around changes in circumstances during the pandemic and how government restrictions and initiatives were viewed by Australians. “We're not healthcare workers,” Professor Payne says matter-of-factly, “There's nothing we can do to save lives. But there was something we could do to inform people about how their lives were changing.”

The framework for the survey was pre-existing, CASiE (Consumer Attitudes, Sentiments and Expectations in Australia) had been running since 1974 and provided a well-built infrastructure with a representative population. All the Melbourne Institute had to do was add five or six COVID-19-related questions to the survey. Easy right? The work, unsurprisingly, would come in identifying which six questions to ask and then analysing the data and reporting on the analysis; an expensive exercise that Melbourne Institute has entirely self-funded. “If we had said, ‘Great idea, let’s go and apply for funding,’ we’d still be waiting to start the survey,” Professor Payne explains. They self-financed the project because it ‘needed to be done,’ she says. Waiting, in her mind, was not an option.

With the endorsement of her business manager, Rachel Derham, and deputy director, Roger Wilkins, Professor Payne quickly established a TTPN steering group, made up of herself, Guay Lim, Mark Wooden, Anthony Scott, Marco Castillo, and Ragan Petrie.  More recently, Nicolas Salamanca and Kushneel Prakash joined the team and Anthony Scott stepped down.

“Since we started in April 2020, we meet for an hour or two each week, and we'd say, ‘Okay, what questions do we keep asking?  What's coming up?’ While we have continued to ask our core three questions, we make room for an additional three questions that focus on a range of policies and actions we are taking (or not taking), which change based on which way the wind is blowing.”

Over the past two years the steering group has tailored questions to focus on the issues of the day, from social distancing and mask wearing, to lending a helping a hand to strangers, to decisions about getting further training. They’ve looked at attitudes surrounding public transportation and working from home, to the uptake of the vaccine, and the subsequential trends surrounding vaccine hesitancy. By capturing information about the respondents, they honed in on particular demographics looking at the impact of the pandemic on families with young children, or parents representing their children’s first line of defence through vaccination. The nimble nature of the survey meant the researchers could be agile in their approach, configuring new questions on a weekly basis in response to emerging issues facing Australians.

“We’d run the survey from Monday to Friday–one of our researchers would get access to the data on Saturday–and by the following Monday, we would have a one-page summary of the key insights,” Professor Payne explains, “So we turned it around very quickly.” Which, for a university context is exceedingly difficult to do.

“I'm not the only one to say this,” Professor Payne continues, “these are meetings we love going to, because they truly demonstrate collaboration.” Deciding which questions to ask each week has been meaningful, she says, and something that has provided a great deal of purpose as Victoria sunk deeper and deeper into a state of locked-down emergency.

Part of Professor Payne’s research focussed on charitable giving. “I was wondering how—if you're expected to be in isolation, in your house, and you're not supposed to talk to your neighbours—how are attitudes changing around lending a helping hand?” It was meanderings like these that would inform the steering group’s question choices, whether they asked them directly or indirectly. The idea was to cover the mounting social issues beyond the physical or biological impacts of the virus. The TTPN group were concerned with how Australians were changing their behaviour; their voting intentions; their political ideologies, even.

By mid 2020, the TTPN survey was consistently producing three streams of outward-facing research communications. The first was the reports – regular summaries of key insights, shared across the University and with the media. The second was through a new publication called Research Insights – a 3-4-page deeper dive into the patterns from TTPN data. The third was an interactive data tracker on the Melbourne Institute website, which revamped the data giving users the ability to interpret the survey results by geography, demography, gender or age. “For some of our key questions, you could see for yourself what the trends looked like over time, and how people were responding in your geographic area,” Professor Payne said.

Today, as we pass the two-year mark of the Pandemic’s recorded existence in Australia, the TTPN data are released monthly. In fact, there has not been a week that’s gone by since the early days of the pandemic that the steering group haven’t been analysing these data. Research Insights have covered topics on the gender divide in COVID-19-related unemployment; community mask-wearing in the peak of global PPE shortages; employee’s feelings towards vaccination and testing mandates; pathways out of the pandemic and returning to the “new normal”; and how Australians have diverged on the acceptability of compulsory government regulations according to their generation and level of education. The point of these Research Insights, Professor Payne says, is to provide a mechanism that gives clear policy recommendations. “Three pages or less,” she says, “One or two graphs, or tables with figures that say, ‘Here's an issue, here's what we know about it, here's where policy should go.’”

Between the website tracker, the reports and regular Research Insights, the output of the Melbourne Institute in 2020 and 2021 was at an all-time high. What has made this whole thing work? “Everyone was willing to step in and go beyond…and that’s part of a bigger picture,” Professor Payne adds. “What the TTPN represents is having faith in yourself. And self-investing. We said at the very beginning, “We're going to find the resources to run this.” And that belief has paid off, she believes.

TTPN has become one of the greatest generators of media coverage for Melbourne Institute, producing more than 200 stories across Australian print, online and broadcast media from May 2020 to November 2021. With this increased media coverage, the Melbourne Institute achieved their goal of framing and contributing to the national conversation on the impact of the Pandemic on Australian lives. Despite the elevated coverage of the project, the costs of running TTPN are still swelling, meaning the Institute’s biggest goal for 2022 is to make the project financially-sustainable. “We’ve solved half the problem – the running of the survey questions. We were able to develop a partnership with Melbourne based Roy Morgan – Australia’s longest established market research company. Now we just need to cover the costs tied to developing questions, creating interactive visualisations, and analyses of the data.”

In two years, the TTPN survey has changed a lot of minds on where to find the latest information. “Universities are excellent at giving new results two years later, because by nature, undertaking rigorous research takes time – but we’ve broken that mould,” Professor Payne says. “We’ve demonstrated that we can turn analysis around quickly and that we can give insights about what’s happening today.” Of all the findings and discoveries to come out of the TTPN so far, Professor Payne says the biggest surprise to her is that they still have not received funding to support the work they are doing.

With two years of data—specific to our lives during the Pandemic—our contributions demonstrate the value of using nimble surveys collected regularly to understand who we are and how we respond to situations out of our control.  COVID-19 changed our lives irreversibly. Looking forward, as Melbourne Institute celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2022, it’s hard to say what TTPN will be measuring. “We will continue to measure our thoughts and reactions to critical economic and social issues affecting how we grow, live, work and more,” Professor Payne says. “And Taking the Pulse of the Nation, is one of the many tools we’ll be using to find out.”