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Jun 6, 2019 | by Nancy Hey

Governance for wellbeing: from struggling and surviving to thriving

This week’s blog is from our Director, Nancy Hey, asking what does good governance look like in promoting wellbeing? She unpacks the drivers of wellbeing and offers models we could use to support our own. 

“We’re still stuck with thinking that applied in 1945, when we needed economic growth to supply us with basic things” Andrew Oswald, University of Warwick, Economist


These ’basic things’ do still matter, fortunately to a far smaller number of people, but they haven’t gone away. Progress towards these were well captured by proxy overall measures of social welfare like GDP and Life Expectancy. The Beveridge Five Giants of squalor, ignorance, idleness, want and disease provided a focus on the many struggling and leads to big improvements for people’s lives that shouldn’t be forgotten. It will be important to enforce and improve current systems and processes intended to address them.

Its how to accommodate these alongside other concerns is where public and policy debate often gets tangled up. The focus on these well understood aims also miss the now-recognised large impacts of mental ill health, freedom and choice, social support and trust, for example, that we now understand better that we can address.


It has become clear that other things matter too and this is better seen in perception data from value surveys and not captured in standard economic data, particularly when looking at averages. For example, we can now see how the quality of public services that influence quality of life such as public transport, healthcare, availability of quality jobs and, particularly, affordable housing, affect how we experience our lives; and that it matters in elections. The relative impacts of these vary from urban to rural areas, perhaps in part because of the role of expenditure which plays more of a role than income on wellbeing.

The next level drivers of wellbeing look to include:

  • Employment and quality jobs
  • Driving public value in services that affect quality of life, including affordable housing, transport and health
  • Governance
  • Opportunity, equity and inclusion
  • Mental health
  • Relationships, social support, trust and generosity, including the strength of our civil society and the integration of our communities
  • Freedom to choose what you do in life and control.

The RSA’s new 5 Giants, for example, cover some of these areas with a focus on: inequality, disempowerment, isolation, intolerance, and climate change.


In the UK with have a Minister for Loneliness and a Minister for Suicide Prevention both seeking to address key areas of overall wellbeing but what if there was a focus on promoting thriving? The term ‘wellness’ is often used for this in physical health – I tend to think of these by what’s covered by the industries around nutrition, physical fitness, sleep and relaxation. Here are three tested popular models that could be used as a framing:

Five Ways to Wellbeing

  • For Adults: Give, Connect, Be Active, Keep Learning, Take Notice
  • For Children and Young People: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Be Creative and Play, Keep Learning

You can see the current UK rates of 5 Ways activity and the next stage for the evidence is described well here.


This is a model of thriving with added, well-established health and wellness themes used in the state of South Australia.  Where they’ve been included in workplace surveys they look to be protective in stressful situations.

PERMA PLUS is: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Achievement, Sleep, Physical Activity, Nutrition and Optimism.

10 Keys to Happier Living

Another comprehensive model that has been tested is the Action for Happiness 10 Keys and the course based on this has been evaluated and shows wellbeing improvements.

Data on drivers of wellbeing

Other ways of looking at the combined impacts of individual and wider context drivers of wellbeing are included in these exploratory projects:

  1. Local Area Adult Wellbeing Indicators covers Personal Wellbeing, Economy, Education and Childhood, Equality, Health, Place and Relationships
  2. Workplace Wellbeing Questionnaire highlights health and relationships,  security and environment and purpose

‘Wellbeing’ frameworks look at outcomes (mostly) in relation to how we are doing today AND in the future.  This means looking at risk and resilience as well as stocks/flows of ‘capitals’ – stores of ‘value’ to society – covered by the idea of ‘capitals’ – economic, natural, human and social.

When we get more miserable or when shocks hit, it’s the quality of our societal relationships that protect and provide resilience. For example, in the Middle East and North Africa region it was ethnic or sectarian inter-group inequality that likely increased the risk of conflict. And in Iceland, resilience, that enabled a positive response to crisis and increases positive emotion, looks like it comes from having a caring and effective community through:

  • strength of social fabric
  • levels of trust
  • institutional quality
  • generosity
  • shared purpose.
Role of Government accountability

When people are satisfied with the way they are governed, wellbeing is higher and more equal. Using the World Bank indicators, analysis shows that what ranks highest in importance for people are ‘effectiveness of government services and efficiency of government and policy delivery’. This is particularly important at lower GDP levels, but still holds true in richer countries. The European Social Survey suggests that once a country reaches a good level of GDP, other governance factors become important, particularly ‘voice and accountability’, ‘political stability’ and ‘absence of violence and terrorism’.  The latter highlights the importance of feeling safe.

Average wellbeing hides misery.  Big differences in wellbeing are driven by 1) unemployment and 2) governance.  Governance is how people view the ‘Quality of Society’ and is measured in terms of assessments of the key institutions in society: trust in the police, politicians, parliament and legal institutions, and satisfaction with public services, government, the economy, and democracy.  In the UK the data shows that:

  • Women, those who claim membership of a discriminated group, and those with lower education – have a lower level of perceived quality of society
  • There are marked regional inequalities in perceived quality of society within the UK, with London and the South East having high levels of economic and governmental satisfaction compared to other regions, particularly the Midlands.

Average UK wellbeing has increased since the EU referendum after being flat before it.  This increase has been driven primarily by increases in England whilst other parts of the UK have remained level.

Good governance for wellbeing looks likely to be governments and organisations that are competent, fair and caring.  

How does UK wellbeing compare to other countries?

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How does UK wellbeing compare to other countries?

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