Sunday, 16 October 2011

Looking at well-being indicators in the middle of a crisis…yes we are.

Last week's conference at the OECD brought together the celebrities of the well-being world along with representatives from national statistics offices to discuss well-being. Normally, these two worlds would not collide; however, now that the experts are wrestling with the idea the GDP isn't a good measure of well-being, they are forced to deal with each other at the coffee break. Though, I will say that for a room full of statisticians and economists, it was a rather lively day (they can be loads of fun!). I would also say that with #occupywallstreet movements and the Arab Spring, the time certainly is ripe to debate turning the corner from seeing people as production machines (like GDP does) to understanding people as multifaceted creatures that have priorities for today and for the future (education, health, safety, life satisfaction, jobs). The point of this conference is to look at some of the national initiatives that have come to the fore since the SSF report came out in 2009 which recommended new measures of societal progress reflecting these priorities and also to look at future areas of research. 

There seemed to be question as to whether we need to be even talking about this in a crisis. That maybe we should just rest with what we do well and get even more serious about that. Let's just look at growth or let's look at the more holistic idea of progress. The people in the room at the OECD and the thousands of people on Wikiprogress seem to agree that growth (higher GDP) is not enough.

The OECD Secretary General said that as countries are applying strict austerity measures, "cuts should not happen where citizen well-being will be affected". The OECD very clearly stated that more of the same is not going to help with anything and may make things worse. We are "turning a corner" now, and new ways of working, measuring, policy making are urgent. If we don't (yes, that sounded like a warning), there will be consequences. The OECD urged that national statistics offices around the world take heed of the recommendations in the SSF report.

Joseph Stiglitz spoke early on in the day and talked about his perceptions of the report 2 years on. He communicated his surprise at how the recommendations of the report were taken up. He said that a national measure has to relate to well-being of the citizens. He cited the example that most citizens in the US saw their standard of living decreasing year after year. Today, most Americans are worse off than they were in 1997. The typical American male worker is making less than in the 1970s. Most Americans feel less secure as well. He also mentioned that the terrible job numbers in the US are actually worse in reality. 25 million Americans who would like a full time job can't get one. What does that do to someone's sense of self worth? GDP doesn't capture any of this. Inequality, inequality, inequality…the gap between the rich and poor in many countries …was echoed throughout the day and is something that has to be addressed.

Stiglitz recommended the following four items for continued work in the area.

  •  Inequality is THE issue of the day. "We are the 99%" from the Wall Street protestors is an important agenda. The top 1% holding a country's wealth is a serious problem and should be addressed.
  •  Research on well-being. What is the effect of unemployment on well-being? What is a sense of social connectedness? Does it relate to whether there is a pub in the town? What makes people well-off?
  •  Risk and vulnerability. The vulnerable of our world are exposed to risk. What are the risks and how do we mitigate them?
  •  All of the above has to translate into policy. We need to measure what matters and policy should be about what matters.

He also pointed out that Scotland has produced an impressive report on how Scotland can better measure and ensure the well being of its citizens based on the findings of the SSF report. I dug it out here for you

 The OECD has held up their side of the bargain and produced a report called "How's Life" which was launched at the conference by OECD Chief Statistician Martine Durand.  The focus of this report is on:

  • households and people, not national production (i.e. GDP),
  • outcomes, not inputs not outputs (those measures that affect the well-being of actual people in a country and not just the ranking of a country at 30,000 feet),
  •  assessing inequalities alongside averages (this will help to better understand for example how the 1% in the US got there and how to fix it),
  • objective (i.e. traditional economic measures) and subjective (reported life satisfaction) aspects of well-being.

Inside the report is a guide for governments to use based on the recommendations of the SSF report. OECD Chief Statistician, Martine Durand called it "a beginning". Though, it seems generally agreed that this is a good start. For statisticians, these soft measures are difficult to stomach I think (rumblings around the halls the next day) so we look forward to the work coming out of the OECD on how to gather and even officialise the softer measures.  
Some key findings include:
  •  No country performs best in all dimensions.
  •  Australia and Canada are the best performers in 12 out of 22 dimensions.
  •  Estonia comes out as the worst.
  •  In the area of work/life balance, satisfaction with work-life balance is lower for women and goes  down with number of children.

In a week or so, there will be a Prog Blog post from the lead author of this report who will get more into the nitty gritty of it. For more information in the meantime go to:,3746,en_21571361_44315115_48858599_1_1_1_1,00.html

Also, you can check out your Better Life Index, where you can choose what is most important to you to see if your country is making policy that reflects your preferences. Be sure to share your preferences.

Of course, you can always go to Wikiprogress and participate in the debate on progress via this blog, help to communicate ideas of progress to everyone via data visualisation, write an article, help us to make sure the quality of the articles is good, submit some data, etc. Let me know at if you would like to participate.

You can look forward to more on this conference and other issues concerning citizen well-being in coming Progblog posts.


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