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Nov 9, 2023 | by Robyn Bignall-Donnelly / Nancy Hey / Stewart Martin

In search of a single figure – measuring societal progress in 2023

We need analysis of economic, societal and environmental indicators together to provide a true and full account of what life is like in the UK. 

We also need to increase the awareness and use of this information for effective decision making and evaluating impact.

Here, we consider how existing and newly released measures and frameworks can help us better understand how we’re doing as a nation, and what that means for the future.

By simplifying data and making it more visible, we can increase public awareness and understanding, helping people make decisions in their work and lives.

The epitome of simplified data is a single, dynamic figure that can be used to compare and communicate societal progress. An established example is Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a single-indicator proxy for a country’s economic performance. Similarly, the Health Index for England generates a single value of health, aiming to create a common language that fosters a more integrated approach.

Understanding the state of the UK’s economy is useful – it has a direct impact on available opportunities and living standards, and increasing growth is seen as a solution to reducing regional inequalities.

In addition to economic wealth, there is also ‘hidden’ wealth that drives a thriving society. We need ways to capture and communicate these social, natural, institutional and human capitals too.

In the UK, we measure national wellbeing through the UK Measures of National Wellbeing Dashboard. This gives us good population-level data on ‘how people are doing’ across the UK over time. From this, life satisfaction is often used as a proxy measure of wellbeing, combining economic, health and social impact. 

Additionally, the Thriving Places Index provides scorecards for each local authority area in England and Wales, and culminates in scores for Equality, Local Conditions, and Sustainability. The next iteration of the index is due out in the new year.

Yet, there is evidence that media coverage – and by extension public awareness – of wellbeing metrics has been low relative to GDP. The ONS has announced plans to release a shorter version of the dashboard to make it easier to communicate, which may go a way to mitigating this.

A new index

Taking this a step further, Carnegie UK has now produced a single-figure score for collective wellbeing, arising from its ‘Life in the UK Index’

Released on 6 November 2023, it has been four years in the making and is derived from the responses of nearly 7,000 people to a 26-question survey delivered by Ipsos. Further information is available in the Life in the UK Index data and methodology.

The score – 62 out of 100 – sets the baseline for what Carnegie proposes might become an annual measure of wellbeing and motivate governments to set collective wellbeing as the main goal.

The number will either go up, down or stay the same, allowing commentary and analysis, perhaps in much the same way as GDP’s twists and turns are discussed and dissected through media commentary.

What does it tell us?

The overall collective wellbeing score is an average taken from across the four domains of Carnegie’s SEED model: social, economic, environmental and democratic wellbeing.

Carnegie UK 'Life in the UK; four domain scores 2023: economic (71), social (72), environmental (63), democratic (41)

Source: Carnegie UK ‘Life in the UK’

This means the index offers a single number for the health of our social capital – something GDP cannot. 

Carnegie UK has called the democratic wellbeing score of 41 “exceptionally low, indicating a crisis in trust in institutions across the UK” and found low scores in this domain across the population. 

73% of people feel they cannot influence decisions affecting the UK as a whole and 56% feel the same about decisions at a local level. The results echo those of the Community Life Survey where only 27% of respondents agree they can influence decisions in their local area. 

We know 

A democratic deficit impacts our ability as a nation to make and take effective decisions quickly, to bounce back from ‘events’, and to tackle wellbeing inequalities. It also affects our national credit rating. 

Conversely, increasing the strength of social fabric, levels of trust, and institutional quality improves national resilience.

Having ways to value this ‘Hidden Wealth’ is a step towards improving and sustaining it for the future, as is public communication of evidence.

The age gap

Carnegie UK and Ipsos’ analysis found a significant wellbeing gap between young and old, which differs from previous findings concerning a midlife wellbeing dip and suggests a more concerning relative position for young people. 

The age groups are different to ONS’, with just three groups: 16-34, 35-54, and 55 and over. Here older people (55 +) had higher collective wellbeing scores than those in middle age (35-54), but young people did not. This is explained by several poor contributory scores for young people regarding their self-reported mental health, feeling less able to rely on others, being unable to afford an unexpected but necessary expense of £850, and a series of environmental measures.

This can be read in conjunction with the recently released Good Childhood Report 2023 which provides insights into the wellbeing of children younger than those aged 16+ included in Carnegie’s work. 

A full picture of national progress

A single number will not tell us everything – as we know, looking at averages alone can hide important nuances that matter for strong, representative policy – but, by evolving measures that collectively capture what matters, we can better understand and track societal progress.

Carnegie UK’s Life in the UK Index contains a wealth of information and their commitment to updating the index in 2024 and 2025 will tell us more about the direction of the UK’s collective wellbeing. 

The recently revised and expanded ONS dashboard of UK Measures of National Wellbeing seeks to perform a similar role, including objective as well as subjective measures. The next quarterly release, which includes new indicators such as hope, will be launched 10 November 2023.

Looking at wellbeing measures together with GDP and other success metrics helps uncover what matters most to people, revealing our ‘hidden’ wealth and the broad-ranging capital we need to build and sustain future wellbeing.


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