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What's the point of the well-being agenda?

Posted on 20 April 2011 .
Tags: Action for Happiness, employment, health and wellbeing, education, skills

The launch of Action for Happiness is a good moment to reflect on the health of the ‘well-being’ initiative; especially since we’ve just submitted our response to the ONS consultation (Measuring Well-being).

It’s an area that has proved fertile ground for sceptics. The Action for Happiness website inevitably provides added fuel and unintended comedy value. A quick browse in “340 Ways to Use Character Strengths” yields the following: Humor (sic): Number 11. Dress Up for Halloween. Er, no thanks.
I make this cheap shot only because we are actually big fans of the well-being initiative, and think it has tremendous potential. But it will only gain traction if some fundamental issues are addressed.
So, in tribute to Action for Happiness’ enthusiasm for lists and exhortations, here are Four Thoughts To Take Notice Of:

  1. Recognise that the government has a legitimate locus. Pretty much everyone can agree that, for example, unemployment is a bad thing. Government clearly has a direct role here: its policies on employment programmes, welfare benefits, tax credits and so on are all important in reducing unemployment. But if you’re out of work, your chances of getting back on track are also influenced by the quality of your personal and social relationships, the quality of the neighbourhood you live in and how much confidence and control you feel you have over your life. The government cannot (and should not) influence every aspect of an individual’s private life, but its role in education, health, social care and so on does have real impact upon individual ‘assets’ such as social relationships and confidence. So in our view, the government has a very clear locus in the wider wellbeing agenda.
  2. Decide what matters. What is it that we are actually trying to capture? The range of responses to the ONS consultation immediately highlights the problem. For some contributors, it’s the small things in life that matter: walking on the beach, playing with the grand-children, riding a bike, and so on. For others, it’s about having a job, being healthy, having enough money to live on and so on. And for some, it’s the big things in society that matter: freedom of expression, social mobility, peace, and equality. So that’s ONS’ first challenge: to come up with a compelling response on ‘what matters’.
  3. Crack the technical challenges. Then there’s the question of how to measure it (whatever ‘it’ is). We make a number of points here including the need:
    • To crack causality, and the crucial importance of the longitudinal studies.
    • To avoid reliance on a single measure.
    • To take into account wider contextual factors such as neighbourhood, social capital and life events.
  4. Explain how the government is actually going to use the data. In my view, the really tricky issues have been parked. There is no good answer yet to the question: ‘what’s going to be done with the information?’ To illustrate:
    • What’s actually going to happen when the GWB (General Well-being) figures are regularly published? Has the government worked out the extent to which the commentariat and social science community will – quite rightly – be all over the figures?
    • Will the government be prepared to take on board what will inevitably be a range of challenging findings? For example: what happens if there are differential levels of well-being in the devolved nations? What will we do if smokers turn out to be happier? How will we respond if the less well-off have lower levels of well-being that stay stubbornly flat?
    • We already know a great deal about well-being. To take just two examples: the existing evidence base demonstrates that there is a real problem with loneliness in elderly women. (Source: English Longitudinal Study of Ageing). Imagine if this kind of information became common currency as a result of publishing GWB. Could it prompt a radical rethink on how we actually care for the elderly? Similarly, existing work on well-being shows a clear link between poor mental health and debt. How would this be dealt with in the new world of GWB?

And we’ve somehow collectively forgotten that the Labour government started out with good intentions on exactly this kind of mission. In the early days of the Blair government, it published an annual performance report, but this was quietly dropped after just a few years. GWB won’t be so easily forgotten, and yet there is no real discussion yet on how it could or should drive policy making and evaluation. Perhaps David Cameron should start thinking about this now.

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