As part of our work supporting local authorities to improve how they understand, measure and improve wellbeing, the Centre delivered a workshop to wellbeing leads within local authorities on using wellbeing evidence. Jamie Sutterby, Director of Communities and Wellbeing for North Suffolk Council, who participated in the workshop shares his perspective on making use of existing data to create a preventative approach to improving local wellbeing.

One of the central questions in my role is how do we improve wellbeing? We know that having a meaningful occupation, a safe home and a supportive community network all contribute to the wellbeing of a person but deriving tangible results for the effect that our programmes have is exceptionally difficult.

Preventative approach to support wellbeing

At South Norfolk Council, we have an emphasis on a preventative approach, as we believe that they provide better outcomes for vulnerable individuals and families and are a more cost-efficient use of the public pound. In addition to this, many of the services that we provide have a preventative aspect when it comes to the wider determinants of health, such as leisure and environmental services.

However, preventative effects of services are notoriously difficult and expensive to evaluate. While purists may ask for a randomised control trial, this would mean diverting resources from valuable services supporting vulnerable residents. Whilst we strongly value the input that evidencing our programmes can have, this must balance against the financial arguments for doing so, in times where local authority budgets are being squeezed.

Challenges to evaluating programmes

We also recognise there is little benefit of evaluating in isolation without understanding the wider systems impact of any intervention. We work alongside partners where possible to try and make sure that we inform the policy debate, rather than being a ‘free rider’ in researching the effect of what we do.

We have found, however, that a successful evaluation, in terms of questions of sustainably funding prevention, can be as much about assembling a coalition of the willing as forming a compelling and well evidenced case, as evaluation designs are fallible if they have no common framework. As teams essentially create a new evaluation model every time, this means that they can lack credibility to other organisations.

Common framework: from crisis to prevention

A common understanding or framework about how to measure wellbeing, both financially and socially, would make inter-agency working on wellbeing projects easier, as well as increasing accountability to members, partners and funders of projects.  It would also provide a consistent approach to shifting resource from crisis spend to prevention.

For me, there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution. Improved evidence about wellbeing and prevention would allow us to use data to have a more intelligent conversation about prevention, allowing us to make better decisions about how to optimise use of limited resources as a system of agencies.

The most efficient measure of impact on wellbeing currently is a combination of consulting with professionals on the ground, comparisons with geographical and statistical neighbours and use of our own reporting measures. We have been proactive in ensuring that we have the in-house expertise to report on and analyse our data, uncovering where issues and room for improvement lies.

The indicators already exist

We have a wide range of indicators at our disposal (national, local and forecasted) but as a sector we are poor at turning this into intelligence, either due to lack of investment or recognition of the value of analytics.

By using this information, it enables us to analyse target areas, ensuring we direct resource appropriately for our district, rather than following the herd. The rural geography of South Norfolk increases difficulty in finding evidence directly applicable to the work we do. An example of this is our homelessness prevention work.

Most research refers to crisis services or sleeping rough, focussed in urban areas, ignoring the work done upstream preventing homelessness occurring in the first place. Increasing the rural evidence base (or increasing availability of evidence) on loneliness, health and meaningful occupations would be the first step to us being able to evaluate the improvements to wellbeing our services have.

Is your local authority using indicators and data to improve wellbeing in a new,  unusual or innovative way?