Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Using policy to shape wellbeing: using wellbeing to shape policy

A steady and increasing volume of work is underway around the world to try to shift people's attention beyond narrow economic measures of progress towards the broader more holistic goals of improving wellbeing. And this blog is just one small part of that activity. There are many ways to classify this flurry of work, but I tend to think of three broad areas - the 3Ds. Work is underway to that seeks to:

1) Develop ... better measures, largely research work that looks at how one might better measure those things which we know are important but don't measure all that well. Things like vulnerability, social cohesion or happiness for example;

2) Discuss ... largely built around participatory approaches that seek to engage a cross section of a society in debating what progress or wellbeing means - and then providing the data about it - as a way to enhance democratic dialogue; and

3) Disseminate... which is work (usually ICT based) that is trying to bring the data and indicators to life so that they are understood and used by a broader audience.

Some projects try to do 2 or 3 of these things at the same time of course and the OECD's Global Project on Measuring Progress is looking into all three areas.

But while there have been significant improvements in all three of the areas, we still search for a missing link, because there does not seem (at least not from where I sit) to have been a corresponding improvement in the ways in which the new indicators are shaping decision making. That's the bad news.

The good news, however, is that things appear to be changing and the last couple of weeks have seen the release of two important contributions to the discussion on how to ensure the new indicators have more of an influence.

First, the UK Young Foundation's new report, The State of Happiness, looks at whether public policy can shape people's resilience and wellbeing. They note that "serious work on policy options has lagged behind academic analysis of what causes happiness" and they look at how a wellbeing lens can shape public policy more systematically, with a particular focus on local level studies noting (and I agree) that the greatest insights come from disaggregating rather than aggregating data. Perhaps most importantly they consider where there is most potential for public policy to influence wellbeing and try to lay to rest the idea that public policy cannot really influence wellbeing. I haven't finished reading it yet but it seems to be an important piece of work and one that will help ensure that the wellbeing agenda moves from the latest good idea to become the bread and butter of policy-making.

Second, is a new book from Carol Graham at the Brookings Institution in the US Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires. This is rather different to the Young Foundation's report, and gives a broad overview of thinking about happiness and its determinants. Importantly it also contains ideas about how understanding happiness - and trying to use data on it - can contribute to public policy, as well some of the risks for policy makers in doing so. It raises many questions and provides much food for thought.. as well as thought about food: we may know for example that people who are overweight, feel less unhappy about their physique when surrounded by others of a similar size. But quite what that means for public policy is, as Graham notes, an interesting and not immediately obvious question. But its a question worth thinking about.

When a machinery of government is set up around economic growth and improving service delivery it will take time for a new paradigm to take hold no matter how sensible it appears. Not only do hearts and minds have to change, but a lot of effort is required. So its natural - and perhaps reassuring - that policy makers are being prudent and lagging behind the academics and the activists. But the tide seems to be turning and these two reports can only help engage the policy makers.

Next month I will be in New York to attend a meeting hosted by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation and Demos that will bring Joseph Stiglitz and others together to discuss this issue. I'm looking forward to blogging about the discussion. But first I'm going to Costa Rica.


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