Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Measuring our progress: The power of well-being. The nef report.

It’s now been almost three months since the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced that the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) will measure the nation’s well-being, “measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.” Since then the ONS has been holding a national debate about what progress (‘national well-being’) means to people and how it is best measured.

An important strand of the ONS’s work on well-being involves choosing 4 or 5 subjective well-being questions to include in the Integrated Household Survey (IHS) – the largest source of UK social data after the census – and deciding how these will fit into the broader concept of national well-being. An announcement on which questions will be used in the first instance is to be made on Thursday, but as the National Statistician, Jil Matheson, has explained, the resulting data will not determine the form of all future measurement, but will be regarded as ‘experimental statistics’, offering scope for further changes to the measurement process.

As a contribution to both the national debate and ONS’s deliberations about measurement, we – the Centre for Well-being at the nef (the new economics foundation) – have published our latest report: Measuring our progress: The power of well-being.

The report begins by reflecting on the range of recent initiatives which have all aimed to redress the over-emphasis on GDP as the dominant measure of social progress. The OECD, the Stiglitz Commission, Eurostat, Beyond GDP and many others have developed measurement frameworks which attempt to capture progress more meaningfully. There has been a broad consensus among them on the need to consider the environment alongside well-being and more objective conditions. The Stiglitz Commission in particular defined progress in terms of the economy, the environment and quality of life, whilst the OECD considered the relationship between the human system and the ecosystem. The nef report develops these ideas but separates the means (resources and human systems) and the ends (the goal of high well-being for all) that, measured together, capture the progress of our nation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Conceptual framework for societal progress

The key relationship in this framework is between resources and goals: how efficient are we at achieving the goal we want – high well-being for all – given our limited planetary resources? This will largely depend on how efficient our human systems – things like the economy, democracy, peace, and other human activities – are at using resources sustainably, and also how efficient these human systems are at delivering high well-being for all citizens.

In the UK, the immediate responsibility of the ONS is to decide how this goal – well-being – is best conceived of and measured. We argue that it is best understood in terms of the dynamic model of well-being, first developed as part of the UK Government Office of Science Foresight project on mental capital and well-being. It uses the concept of ‘flourishing’ – functioning well in interactions with the world and as a result feeling good about life. The model (Figure 2) describes how people’s external conditions (such as their income, employment status, housing and social context) act together with their personal resources (such as health, resilience and optimism) to allow them to function well and feel good. The model really emphasises the idea that well-being is about more than just happiness – it’s also about having good relationships, autonomy, competence and a sense of purpose, and this is what leads to people feeling happy and satisfied with their life. This report recommends some specific questions that attempt to capture some of this complexity.

Figure 2: Dynamic model of well-being

The ONS also has the task of deciding how survey results should be presented: as just a single life satisfaction indicator, as a composite index or as a dashboard of several indicators? And if it decides to use more than one indicator, should it use only subjective indicators or a combination of subjective and objective ones? And which ones? We addressed these questions by considering how measures can be best designed to have public and political resonance. As a result we recommend that the ONS develops a headline index of well-being , reported as the percentage of people who are flourishing. We also recommend that there is a headline measure of well-being inequality, as well as a set of objective indicators of the drivers of well-being. In the long-run we advocate a much broader set of subjective well-being questions is included, to fully capture the lived experience of people in the UK.

But to make the exercise of measurement worthwhile, subjective indicators of well-being need to be designed so that they are used by policy-makers to change the way that policies are developed and implemented. As the Istanbul Declaration states ‘[A] culture of evidence-based decision making has to be promoted at all levels, to increase the welfare of societies’. The full value of well-being measures will only be realised when they are embedded in the processes by which governments aim to improve the lives of their citizens.

Find the new nef report at and have your say in the ONS national debate at

Blog post by Laura Stoll, The Centre for Well-being, nef

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