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Mar 17, 2022 | by Nancy Hey

The Wellbeing State – a long term approach to national resilience and wellbeing

When the world is uncertain you need even greater clarity in the centre so you can react quickly, look ahead, adapt and invest in the things that keep you strong. 

“For a nation to be sustainable and strong, the economic policies that support it need to be inclusive and comprehensive. Misery increases discontent, ambivalence and illness. It affects our individual and collective performance and resilience, as well as the strength of our collective decision-making and our national security.” Nancy Hey – Levelling Up Life in the UK Dec 2021

The UK House of Lords Select Committee on Covid-19 was appointed on 13 May 2021 to consider the long-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economic and social wellbeing of the United Kingdom. 

In this blog, our Executive Director Nancy Hey, who was an advisor to the Committee, discusses the report’s findings and outlines why we welcome their overall recommendation – that the UK needs to move towards a Wellbeing State…

The House of Lords Select Committee on Covid-19 is an unusual Select Committee that tried a wide range of approaches to hear from many people, groups and organisations not normally heard. It encouraged Parliament to think more systematically as well as looking at trends and the future.  

The Committee looked specifically at the pandemic and its long term impacts specifically focusing on:

  • The existing trend of the switch to digital on the drivers of our wellbeing – our mental and physical health, our relationships and our work.
  • The impact of the pandemic on parents, babies, children, of parental work and relationships and on education. 
  • The long-term impact of the pandemic on large towns and smaller cities, focussing particularly on housing and green spaces, the changing nature of employment and public transport provision. 

Existing trends are accelerated by such shocks, which means there is a need to improve resilience and preparedness for a volatile and uncertain future and be ready for the likelihood of big unexpected changes to come. 

The overall conclusion of the Committee was that our current understanding of national resilience and preparedness is not fit-for-purpose and that the role of the state needs focus on the resilience of our national wellbeing for the long term and to enable, support and coordinate action towards it:

  • In making its policy decisions during the pandemic, the Government has had to balance the competing claims of keeping people alive and well, supporting the economy, educating our children, and maintaining the mental health of the community and more. 
  • It is becoming increasingly clear that to make these decisions well, competing claims like these must be evaluated against some overall criterion. This Committee’s view is that the best criterion, going forward, is the wellbeing of the people.
  • This makes it operationally possible to use wellbeing as the criterion for choosing between policy options. This shift is at the core of what we mean when we propose moving to a Wellbeing State.
  • Wellbeing is defined by the ONS as “how we are doing, as individuals, communities and as a nation and how sustainable this is for the future”. The definition of a ‘Wellbeing State’ is one which recognises that different people and communities will have different aspirations, and different needs.

Wiring wellbeing into our national accounts

This broader thinking on civil contingencies and civic preparedness is already happening in a range of fields including in policy making by Reform and in multi-hazard environment work in health.  

We know that areas with high wellbeing inequalities also have low perceived quality of society especially driven by perceptions and trust in government. From the pandemic, we can also see that trust in government, and in organisations, comes from ‘reliability’ – being able to anticipate and protect citizens – and being effective in a disaster.

This is similar to the Fusion approach to international security that followed the Chilcot Inquiry and other developments that formed the basis of the UK Strategic Framework.  

The Levelling Up White Paper picks up these ideas for the domestic social policy departments with shared missions and capitals. Like in this report, Levelling Up recognises that major technological and societal changes are happening. It also understands that we need to avoid the inter-generational disasters that resulted from previous industrial and technological changes – from the decline of coal mining, steel, shipyards, mill towns etc. as seen in the unemployment impact on wellbeing, which has lasting effects on individuals, families and communities. 

The concept of the ‘Wellbeing State’ in the House of Lords Committee report builds on the transition from a ‘Warfare State’ to the ‘Welfare State’. GDP was originally developed as a way to respond to our post-war needs. It is a measure of activity, and therefore can miss hidden things we care about and is also silent on risk, sustainability and fairness. It was very effective at improving lives – along with life expectancy – and a great proxy for societal progress but never intended as one.

“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  

This is true also of our national accounts  which should cover economic, social and environmental (see Richard Stone 1984). Satellite accounts exist for unpaid work and soon for civil society and we can see similar approaches being developed by CFOs, for example Accounting for Sustainability and in ESG reporting.   

These could be brought together around the domains of the wellbeing framework already established (including through our own Covid WIRED tool), along with assessment of capitals and, ideally, forecasts all wired in so they can be used in decision making in all sectors and parts of the nation. 

Measuring wellbeing

In order to make the Wellbeing State a reality, wellbeing also needs to be measured. The Committee held a session on this in April 2021 and progress is being made in this area:

  • The Levelling Up White Paper included a commitment to “undertake further work to supplement existing data on wellbeing at a subnational level, as well as to understand the drivers of wellbeing and identify the most impactful levers available to policymakers.” Technical Annex p.33
  • Alongside the levelling up white paper the Office for National Statistics published indicators related to the missions at a local authority level across the UK.
  • The HMT Budget in 2021 highlighted regional disparities in life satisfaction. 
  • The Green Book Supplementary Guidance in July 2021 contained information on how to use wellbeing evidence in policy development, business cases and evaluation. 

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