Can well being be saved from obscurity?

March 13, 2012 by
Filed under: Public policy 


Yesterday morning I chaired a joint event between the Office of National Statistics and the Economic and Social Research Council. First off were presentations from two enthusiastic DEFRA civil servants exploring the links and tensions between a focus on well-being and on sustainability. Although what they said about mapping ecosystems, understanding the social value of the environment and a ‘capitals based’ approach to accounting for national resources was interesting, and included reference to documents produced by the Treasury, it also suggested that DEFRA – rather like DfID – is a kind of alternative subsystem within Whitehall, very committed and progressive but also, apparently, somewhat marginal to the main business of Government (I hope I’m being unfair about this, if so do put me right).

The main conclusions I drew from a subsequent discussion were sobering. Although it is heartening that ONS has now started publishing the findings of its research , there turned out to be something of a crisis of confidence among the community of wellbeing watchers. In part this is the reliability of the data, in part the contrast between the fine-grained differences between conventional ‘objective’ measures of progress and more subjective values and feelings-based data, in part the fact that most of the early findings from the ONS research are rtaher bland and predictable. These factors add to worries about the credibility of the whole project in the eyes of the media, the public and policy makers.

As the conversation started to sag I took my responsibilities as chair seriously and tried to develop a more positive way of thinking about the impact of well being-based approaches.

Here it is.

Making the case for a more values-based approach to policy and measuring progress involves three different tasks. First, there is the painstaking long-term challenge of developing and gaining official acceptable for a new set of metrics. This will sometimes seem impossible and at other times futile, but in the end it can succeed. Crucially, advocates of different ways of measuring progress should comfort themselves with the knowledge that that it took statisticians decades to agree an accepted measure for conventional economic growth.

Second, part of the task is simply to challenge conventional debates; not to provide easy answers but to ask tricky questions. One of my favorites is how politicians think we can combine a pursuit of social mobility with increasing well being, when behavioral economists have shown that loss aversion is a more powerful emotion than pleasure at gains. In a society with perfect relative social mobility the people going up would be a bit happier but the equal number going down would be a lot more miserable. This doesn’t mean we should abandon the goals of social mobility or increasing well being, but that we need a more nuanced debate about what we mean by both terms.

Third, in the shorter term (while we are waiting out the decades before we have accepted international well being measures) it is still possible to use basic insights into well being to shape policy. Two examples: what we know about the long term impact on young people of protracted periods out of work should make it absolutely imperative that we tackle the problem even at the expense of resources dedicated to unemployment in older cohorts; also, the data showing a rapid fall off in well being among the very elderly provides the basis for paternalistic interventions to incentivise people to provide for their care needs towards the end of life (as the Dilnot Commission has advocated).

I can’t say I provided a framework to save well being from its detractors but at least people seemed to go off to lunch a little bit happier.

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4 Comments on Can well being be saved from obscurity?

  1. Carl Allen on Tue, 13th Mar 2012 8:44 pm
  2. “… basic insights into well being to shape policy. Two examples: what we know about the long term impact on young people of protracted periods out of work should make it absolutely imperative that we tackle the problem even at the expense of resources dedicated to unemployment in older cohorts …”

    Such is life except that some older people will be looking at those bandit bankers and others of their ilk such as the tax avoiders and wondering if Matthew is bowling short of a length.

  3. Fiona Beddoes-Jones on Wed, 14th Mar 2012 9:02 am
  4. It’s hardly surprising that the results are lackluster and boring. It’s impossible to create excting reading out of boring and possibly ill-conceived questions.

    Like many readers I remember answering the questions and thinking at the time that the Gov had missed the point in some respects. Anyone who’s ever watched Dr Who or Star Trek understands that there are 4 temporal time frames: the past, the present, the future and a possible parallel universe.

    These questions only address 2 temporal time frames – the past and the present. It would be more useful for example to know how hopeful people feel about the future. Hope for the future relates to depression and other chemical markers in the brain such as endorphins, seratonin, dopamine etc. All of which effect and affect someone’s emotional and physical well-being.

    It’s easy to be critical. On the plus side, they’ve made a great start and will hopefully learn from their mistakes and design some ‘better’ questions next time. We have some really excellent psychologists in the UK who design questions and understand those questions to ask which tap into other elements of well-being. I hope that the Gov will utilise their expertise next time.

  5. Paul Allin on Fri, 16th Mar 2012 8:24 am
  6. Hi Matthew – belated thanks for taking part in our event on Monday and indeed for sending us out to lunch with such a clear summary of three key tasks ahead. We want new measures, be they subjective or objective, to be accepted, to be useful and, above all, to be used – in policy, public debate and commercial and individual decision-making.

    You were being a tad unfair, I reckon, on two counts. First, I really didn’t pick up a ‘crisis of confidence’, more a feeling of standing on the brink of something quite revolutionary in how we view the state of the nation. Second, we are working closely with DEFRA because there is a big picture across government and internationally, on well-being, progress and sustainable development. It may not always be apparent, but the ‘triple bottom line’ of the economy, society and the environment is behind apparently separate initiatives.

    Best wishes, Paul
    PAUL ALLIN, Director: Measuring National Well-being Programme, ONS

  7. cityeyrie on Fri, 16th Mar 2012 9:38 am
  8. I really think this whole idea of developing a ‘well-being’ measure is an absurdity if it involves asking people about how they feel. There are so many ways that questioners can ‘load’ their questions and respondents may vary in what they think is important for their well-being, developing something which will be accepted nationally (to say nothing of internationally) can only get us wrapped up in a mess of contradictory indicators. It is tricky enough developing simple questionnaire about how people feel about a particular experience they’ve just been through…

    No doubt it would be subject to another slew of arguments, but if there were sharper distinctions made within GDP about what kinds of activity are being produced, in terms of whether they were producing societal ‘good’ or not figures could be derived from the kind of metrics already gathered which would be clear to all. For example, if whenever the GDP came out we had a clear distinction given between that which is ‘produced’ by security/prison/weapon-making activity vs education/health/cultural activity that would give us a fairly clear, objective metric about how well or otherwise our or other societies are doing in promoting people’s well-being. Although again this would be subject to argument, it would be one which could be held in public with some hope of people being able to engage with it, as opposed to the one about the niceties of how and why people answer questions about how they feel about their lives.

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