Five challenges for Cameron and the success of his wellbeing agenda

With the first wellbeing statistics due out tomorrow, Graeme Henderson challenges David Cameron to actually use the data to influence policy.


Graeme Henderson is a research fellow at IPPR North

Tomorrow will see the publication of the full national wellbeing accounts, two years after David Cameron tasked the Office of National Statistics with devising a way of measuring well-being including people’s own assessment of their wellbeing and satisfaction with their lives.

That is the easy part, or rather the part which a prime minster can delegate in full. Making use of these figures is more challenging and requires leadership from the front.

Our recent report (pdf), written in conjunction with Carnegie UK Trust, shows how critical leadership is if wellbeing data is to be made use of in making and evaluating policies; it is the task on which many one-time flag-bearers for well-being, such as France, have come unstuck.

Below are five areas Cameron must drive progress in over the coming year if wellbeing is to be taken seriously, and be seen as an important complement to traditional measures such as GDP.

The alternative is it being labelled as nothing more than a tokenistic PR exercise.

1. Requiring his cabinet to consider the wellbeing data in deciding spending priorities:

Ministers are under pressure to make public expenditure go further. They should be encouraged to make use of wellbeing data to inform priorities and defend initiatives from spending cuts, where there is a significant impact on wellbeing relative to their cost.

2. Expecting national and local civil servants to make use of the data:

A policy-making approach that takes wellbeing seriously will require cultural change within policy making circles at all levels. This will not happen overnight but can be sped up by the government championing the use of wellbeing data. The local level should not be overlooked as this is a scale at which issues identified as important for wellbeing are more tangible.

Local authorities are in the process of setting up health and wellbeing boards as part of the health reforms. It is important these boards live up to that title and are not simply heath boards.

3. Encouraging wider civil society to utilise the data:

The use of wellbeing in policy making has worked best and had most impact where civil society and citizens have been involved in the process and time has been taken to explain wellbeing indicators and promote their usage by wider society. This may be a way of breathing new life into some of the important themes and issues that were branded ‘Big Society’, and of helping make politics seem more relevant to everyday life and politicians appear less distant.

4. Getting some early, tangible uses of the well-being data in policy-making:

This will help wellbeing measures to be taken more seriously and make them appear more tangible. For instance, in Toronto, wellbeing data helped identify, better understand and start to tackle the rise in youth violence which coincided with reduced participation in structured youth engagement activities, employment and training.

5. Fostering cross-party support:

If wellbeing indicators are to embed themselves in UK policy making they need to be supported not just by this government, but the next one, and the one after that. Wellbeing must not become too linked to one political party if it is to have longevity.

The overarching question which remains is how committed Cameron still is to an agenda he once called the “central political challenge of our times”.

We will have the wellbeing data tomorrow; the next 12 months will tell us whether it was worth collecting.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.