Cameron’s well-being index could help transform lives for the better

There are signs of hope in the wake of Mr Cameron's speech that, with sufficient attention from the top and a genuine national debate, the national well-being index could be a crucially important tool in the progressive effort to transform lives for the better.

Juliet Michaelson is a researcher at the Centre for Well-being at the new economics foundation (nef)

Last week’s news that the government is to start measuring subjective well-being sounded, as Jules Peck argued here last week, like very good news for progressives. Yesterday we heard more of the details of what is being proposed – with a vision that just might start to transform the business of policy-making. If the implementation lives up to the promise of what has been set out, it could be very good news indeed – certainly for those of us who want a society that genuinely works to improve ordinary people’s lives.

Despite the fact that a Conservative prime minister is perhaps not our most obvious bedfellow, listening to David Cameron deliver his speech at yesterday’s ‘Well-being Summit’ I was struck by the similarity of many of his arguments to points we’ve been making for years at the new economics foundation.

He spoke of well-being indicators being used as a headline measure of the country’s progress, with the power to shape high-level government decisions, on a par with GDP. Hence the answer to the question that was posed to him – ‘If the index falls, will the government have failed?’ – should be yes.

This is something very different from the ‘below the radar’ measurement that – as Canadian expert John Helliwell pointed out – many governments around the world have already been doing for many years. And the measurement will be further raised in prominence by the coming national debate, which quite rightly will allow the public, as well as experts, to have their say about what really matters.

Mr Cameron also talked about the importance of government policy supporting people to feel in control and make choices, and having a sense of purpose and belonging. This reveals an understanding of well-being, not merely as momentary happiness, but as a multi-faceted concept, which crucially includes how people interact with the world around them. It is an understanding reflected in our National Accounts of Well-being research: the first comprehensive attempt to set out a framework for how the different elements of people’s experience can be measured.

Of course, many will be sceptical about whether the policies Mr Cameron proposed to address these issues – furthering the so-called ‘choice’ agenda, the new welfare to work programme and the Big Society – will actually promote well-being as he claimed. Hence the importance of getting the measurement approach right, so that their effectiveness can be properly judged.

I was pleased to see that, even though his examples were rather carefully chosen, Mr Cameron’s speech tackled head-on an issue that is often overlooked by those discussing well-being measurement: that there will often be occasions when economic measures and well-being indicators point in different directions. He talked about the sale of cheap alcohol and advertising to children – both policies that are good for the bottom line but potentially very bad for the well-being of individuals and communities.

The question we are often asked, ‘What difference will measuring well-being actually make?’, is answered by precisely these sorts of examples – where well-being data provides policy-makers with a different perspective, and different options for action when making decisions.

One unmentioned area where well-being measures come into sharp conflict with economic indicators is in the area of growth and sustainability. Mr Cameron was careful to say yesterday that ‘growth is the essential foundation of all our aspirations’. But as Jules Peck showed so clearly, current economic growth is getting us deep into debt in terms of the planet’s natural capital: hence we are enjoying well-being today at the cost of our children’s well-being in the future. This is a tension which our politicians urgently must face up to, and which was missing from today’s rhetoric.

The most disappointing part of yesterday’s summit was when various government chief economists were invited to reflect on how the announcement related to their current work. They didn’t seem to have many ideas about how it would affect the business of their departments. In fact, the Department for Education, when asked directly about subjective well-being, answered by ‘[re-emphasizing] the value of objective measures’.

Perhaps an ill-judged response before an audience of experts on subjective measurement. What it highlights once more is that well-being measures must be designed so that government can be held firmly to account on its promises to improve well-being. Politicians must not be allowed to produce empty rhetoric which fizzles out on contact with the inertia of the civil service.

So there is still a long way to go for those of us advocating a well-being approach to policy. Unless the national well-being measures are designed and implemented in a way which, for example, makes those educating the next generation pay equal attention to how children’s experiences at school shape their development, as to the pieces of paper proclaiming their much vaunted ‘educational attainment’, a big opportunity will have been lost.

But there are signs of hope in the wake of Mr Cameron’s speech that, with sufficient attention from the top and a genuine national debate, the national well-being index could be a crucially important tool in the progressive effort to transform lives for the better.

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