Wellbeing: An Idea Whose Time has come?on 20 January 2014
By Ian Bache and Louise Reardon
Wellbeing has recently risen rapidly up the political agenda in Britain and beyond. In Britain this agenda was signalled most clearly by David Cameron’s announcement in November 2010 that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) was to start a Measuring National Wellbeing programme to create a trusted set of national statistics that will help people monitor and understand wellbeing. In endorsing the project Cameron noted; ‘it will open up a national debate about what really matters, not just in government but amongst people who influence our lives … And second, this information will help government work out, with evidence, the best ways of trying to help improve people’s well-being.’ Since 2010 the ONS has been developing an understanding of different domains of wellbeing, added subjective wellbeing questions to the Annual Population Survey and created an interactive ‘wellbeing wheel’ based on their latest findings. However, this activity begs two questions for us; where has this wellbeing measurement agenda come from, and will it last?
Two factors are particularly important to the rise of the current agenda. The first is the gradual acceptance that the pursuit of GDP growth can have serious environmental consequences. The second is an improved ‘science of wellbeing’ – particularly in relation to the measurement of subjective wellbeing. These improvements have allowed ‘self-report’ life satisfaction questions to be used in national surveys by the ONS and others. Also important has been research indicating that increases in real national income do not necessarily lead to increased wellbeing among citizens: the so called ‘Easterlin Paradox’. Other research has noted the positive impact that numerous factors such as social interaction, faith, intimate relationships and different political-institutional frameworks can have on subjective wellbeing.
These elements are reflected in national and international initiatives on measuring wellbeing that have spurred on UK activity. National initiatives tend to be in OECD or EU countries. Within the OECD, for example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has developed MAP: Measures of Australia’s Progress as its ‘flagship publication’. Within the EU there are initiatives in a range of countries, including France, Italy and Spain. Within international organisations, the EU’s GDP and Beyond communication has been promoted by the European Commission and endorsed by the European Parliament. The Commission’s initiative provides a roadmap of five key actions to improve the EU’s indicators of progress, strengthening the environmental dimension in particular. The OECD is also very active on this issue, with the measurement of wellbeing and monitoring of wider notions of progress deemed a key priority for the organisation. The resulting OECD Better Life Index provides the main international platform for collaboration and exchange of wellbeing information.
However, the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission arguably provided the biggest boost to momentum for this agenda. The Commission sought to ‘identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress….to consider what additional information might be required for the production of more relevant indicators of social progress…and to discuss how to present the statistical information in an appropriate way.’ Its report in 2009 produced a number of recommendations that stimulated debate and further action at national and international levels.
While Cameron gave this agenda its biggest boost in the UK, interest goes back to the Blair government. As early as 2000 the Local Government Act gave local authorities power to promote wellbeing, while a Strategy Unit report of 2002 outlining arguments for and against government in this area stimulated a number of activities within government departments. DEFRA was particularly active, linking wellbeing with sustainable development.
Moreover, Cameron’s interest goes back some years. He gave a speech in May 2006 stating: ‘It’s time we admitted there’s more to life than money, and time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – General Well-Being’. Cameron also set up the Quality of Life Policy Group as part of his Shadow Cabinet policy review. The report argued that ‘we are now confident enough of the dynamics of life satisfaction to start subjecting many areas of government policy to much more vigorous well-being tests’. The work of this group, which had ongoing discussions with Cameron and other senior Conservatives, was important in firming up his commitment to wellbeing and for his confidence in the arguments.
There are also important Liberal Democrat initiatives to note. In March 2009, Liberal Democrat MP (and now Equalities Minister) Jo Swinson launched an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Well-being Economics that included a high proportion of Liberal Democrat members. In August 2009 a new Liberal Democrat working group launched a Quality of Life consultation paper at the party’s autumn conference. The result was the policy paper, ‘A new purpose for politics: Quality of Life’, which was approved by the party at their autumn conference in September 2011. This paper sought to make specific policy recommendations and put the agenda ‘right in the heart of the government machine’.
These developments have their origins in the deliberations of transnational epistemic communities with a long-standing interest in wellbeing. Academics have played a crucial role in these communities – particularly from economics and psychology. The politics discipline has been largely absent from these deliberations, although one group is now seeking to develop this contribution.
Much of the recent momentum though is connected to statisticians within the OECD and, in particular, to its former Chief Statistician, Enrico Giovannini – a key advocate of the agenda. The ‘think and do tank’ the new economics foundation is also identified as a key player in the flow of ideas and practice within transnational networks. Similarly, the ONS is connected formally to the EU statistical system ensuring a two-way flow of information between national and international levels.
Yet while there is activity in both political and policy spheres, for wellbeing to become a mainstay of UK politics and policy the agenda requires the construction of a more unified narrative of the problem that wellbeing indicators might address. Moreover, there is currently no group of politicians clearly and consistently making the case, although it is notable that Labour has recently talked about the need for a ‘politics of wellbeing’.
The respect that wellbeing indicators have gained in both epistemic and policy communities has led to an important shift in how states and international organisations are ‘measuring progress’. How these broader measures might be used in policy is a key question. In the context of recession, it takes a bold politician to argue for a shift in policy focus away from the economy – however small.
Yet before the recession public opinion surveys were pointing to disillusionment with the blind pursuit of economic growth and an emerging desire for a more rounded sense of progress. While for now at least politicians are relatively silent on the issue, statisticians and civil servants continue to quietly think through the questions and responses that might one day help achieve such a goal. Only then will we really be able to speak of wellbeing as an idea whose time has come.
Ian Bache is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Convenor of the ESRC Seminar Series on The Politics of Wellbeing. Louise Reardon is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. She tweets @LouiseReardon1.
Image by Andrew Williams