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Jan 27, 2021 | by Jennifer Wallace, Ben Thurman and Hannah Ormston - Carnegie UK Trust

Putting wellbeing into policy: where to begin?

From the Centre: This guest blog is part of our Measuring Wellbeing Series of blogs and resources. This series draws from a range of experts on approaches to measuring wellbeing. While the views expressed do not necessarily represent the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, in our role as an independent collaborating centre and thought leader, we bring together the disparate theoretical threads to draw out what this means, practically, for decision makers. The Centre recognises wellbeing as a multi-dimensional concept, where a range of definitions and measures may apply and are useful for different purposes.

We don’t have just one measure of health or illness; we have many different tools designed to help us understand each in different situations. We’d like to encourage discussion of how different approaches to understanding and measuring wellbeing might be applied as ‘the best tool for the job’ in different situations as well.

We may one day look back on 2020 as the year in which conversations about wellbeing policy came to the fore, charged by the Covid-19 pandemic and a stark realisation of the vast inequalities in our society. We know that our health, wealth and happiness are all interconnected. And yet it has never been more clear that the current economic model is failing to deliver the things we need to live well together, now and in the future.

The sudden crises in public health and mental health, and the intensification of a much deeper-rooted climate crisis, have led many to reappraise how we understand social progress, taking a more holistic view of social, economic, environmental and democratic outcomes under the banner of ‘build back better’. But despite the aspirational rhetoric, decision making continues to be guided by economic outcomes. The single measure of GDP is still held up in political and media debates as the indicator of how we are doing as a society, often at the expense of other factors that contribute to our collective wellbeing.

Gross Domestic Wellbeing

At the end of last year, the Carnegie UK Trust published a report that offered an alternative to GDP, and a way to measure what really matters. Gross Domestic Wellbeing (GDWe) brings together 40 indicators from the ONS Measures of National Wellbeing dataset into a single figure. The purpose of creating GDWe is not to suggest that societal wellbeing can be distilled into a single number, rather, it aims to provide an easily communicable measure that encourages policy makers to prioritise wellbeing.

If we were to replace GDP with GDWe, as a single number to which leaders are held accountable, policy making would be forced to focus not on the economy above all else, but on a more complex set of interrelated factors that make up the societal wellbeing.

Super policies: connecting domains of wellbeing

What sort of policies would emerge from such an approach? Alongside the statistical component of GDWe, the report also reviewed more than 40 independent commissions and inquiries. Analysing these recommendations from some of the most pre-eminent thinkers in social policy – on issues from where we live and what we do, to economic justice, health and the environment – we found that there are a number of cross-cutting policies that would improve wellbeing across multiple domains:

  • We heard consistently how investing in active travel across the social gradient could reduce health inequalities and form a core part of our response to the climate crisis. 
  • Similarly, we noticed a clear link between access to green space and the natural environment within our local area, and our relationships, health outcomes and personal wellbeing – an issue that has only become more salient during the Covid crisis.
  • Increased investment in early years and family support was another cross-cutting recommendation that emerged as a way to improve outcomes relating to health, education, poverty and inequality. 
  • A range of measures were proposed to reform the social security system, to alleviate poverty and inequality, and to improve health outcomes. 
  • And we also noted the critical importance of housing across a number of the ONS’s wellbeing domains: where we live, personal finance, relationships and health.

This shows that we don’t have to address problems in isolation. There is scope to develop what elsewhere have been called ‘super policies’ – policies that deliver positive outcomes across a range of areas, without unintended negative outcomes.

Today for Tomorrow

This blog is written during a wellbeing week hosted by Today for Tomorrow, which calls on the UK Government to deliver a new, sustainable vision for the nation that prioritises our environmental, social, economic and cultural wellbeing. Through the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill it aims to move beyond economic growth, to embed long-term thinking in policy making.

It is now more than a decade since the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission outlined the limitations of GDP as a measure of social progress. In that time, there has been no shortage of ideas on how to improve wellbeing; but if we are to move ‘beyond GDP’ we need a new way of measuring social progress to guide policy makers.

Our hope is that GDWe can contribute to a shift, from prioritising economic growth, to delivering a much more holistic policy agenda. It is this against which we should be measuring the success of governments and our understanding of social progress. Because, in the words of Jacinda Ardern, one of the world’s leading advocates for a wellbeing economy, “Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not success. It is failure.”

Find out about the Centre's work in wellbeing economics and analysis.

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Find out about the Centre's work in wellbeing economics and analysis.

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