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Oct 5, 2023 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Wellbeing at the heart of policy: setting out the WISER priorities

How do we know which policy areas to focus on? Or if a policy or action is successful? 

Our report Wellbeing evidence at the heart of policy explains how a wellbeing approach can help inform, evaluate and drive decision making. Here, we discuss key insights from the report and explore further resources.


After five years of building the evidence base, our 2020 report Wellbeing evidence at the heart of policy updates the 2014 Commission on Wellbeing and Policy. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing, was established in response to the Commission to find out what works to improve wellbeing and put that evidence into action; we build on the rich and growing data from the ONS UK Measures of National Wellbeing.

The report sets out the WISER policy priorities, summarising the evidence so far in a practical way:

  • Work 
  • Income 
  • Society and governance
  • Emotional and mental health
  • Relationships and communities

A wellbeing approach to policy

When understood and measured effectively, wellbeing is a meaningful and useful framework for decision making. It is the ultimate goal of policy and civic action – the idea that we can judge a society by how much the people are thriving.

Using a wellbeing lens to design and evaluate policy helps us make sense of goals and impacts. It also allows us to assess if and how a policy works to improve people’s lives, and offers us the practical opportunity to inform public spending. 

Wellbeing in policy making means that whatever the intended outcome of a policy is, if it decreases wellbeing, we cannot call it a success. To evaluate a policy fully, we must take into account its consequences on national, local, and individual wellbeing. 

A wellbeing approach broadens measures of success and progress by taking us beyond economic-only metrics such as GDP.

The report

Wellbeing evidence at the heart of policy explores and explains a wellbeing approach to policy. It details how using wellbeing evidence to inform and evaluate policy is vital to societal progress. It provides an overview of what the evidence tells us, how we can use this knowledge in decision making, the role different stakeholders can play in improving wellbeing, and next steps for furthering our knowledge.

Learnings

The report is divided into four sections:

1. Getting to clarity. What we mean by wellbeing – wellbeing concepts and measurement.

  • Wellbeing encompasses both the environmental factors that affect us, and the experiences we have throughout our lives such as how we feel about ourselves, our relationships, or sense of purpose. These factors are diverse and often interconnected.

Related concepts and approaches

Standard of livingThis is a measure of the wealth and comfort of individuals and households, based on material inputs.
Quality of LifeThis takes into account material and non-material factors that are important to people’s lives.
ProsperityProsperity is commonly understood as the accumulation of material wealth, but it has been interpreted to be broader, to include the joy of everyday life and the prospect of an even better life in the future – for individuals as well as nations.
Social valueSocial value is the explicit quantification of the changes people experience in their lives. Based on the relative importance that people place on different aspects of their lives.
Public valueCompares the quality of public policy outcomes with total funding spent on those policies. This emphasises the need for appropriate outcome measures (as opposed to outputs) to determine the value of policies for the UK.
  • Measuring wellbeing over time and between people and places contributes to a coherent and common approach for determining which policies and interventions work. 
  • We have well-established measures and methods for capturing wellbeing, at local, national and global levels.

To learn about definitions, concepts, and methods of measurement, discover more in chapter one of the full report.

2. Creating cost effective policy with wellbeing – improving wellbeing by reviewing the evidence of what works, and the tools needed to implement findings.

  • When developing a policy, we can ‘design in’ wellbeing across all sectors and departments by considering the impact that it will have on people and communities. For instance, taking into account the health impacts of a transport or energy infrastructure project as well as economic efficiency, sometimes called co-benefits.
  • Evidence shows what works to improve wellbeing in different sectors; for instance health is one of the most important determinants of subjective wellbeing. In the health sector, investing in mental health treatment is an example of cost effective implementation.

In chapter two of the report, you can find evidence of what works to improve wellbeing in a variety of sectors, examples of implementation in practice, and opportunities for interventions.

  • Wellbeing can be used to guide all stages of policy design, from setting the agenda and agreeing the primary outcome, to evaluating its impact.
    This is now set out in more detail in the HM Treasury Green Book Supplementary Guidance.

A diagram showing how to to set wellbeing goals and impact - 1 what is your goal, 2 how to do you contribute to improve wellbeing, 3 what are you currently doing, 4 what can you to improve, 5 what do you want to do, 6 How do you expect change to happen, 7 measure, review, learn and evaluate.

There are more details about this framework in chapter two of the full report.

3. The role of businesses, communities and individuals how they can improve wellbeing.

  • Wellbeing can play an important complementary role to an organisation, regardless of its main purpose. For businesses and employers, a healthy and happy workforce is good for employees themselves and productivity goals. Community groups, charities and other civil society organisations can demonstrate the impact and importance of their work using wellbeing outcomes.
  • Individuals can also influence their own wellbeing through behaviours, attitudes and activities.

For evidence informed recommendations for what employers can do to improve workplace wellbeing, case studies of how the non-profit sector uses wellbeing to show impact, and suggested actions for individuals, see chapter three of our full report.

4. This is a journey with some issues still to tackle – considers what’s next and discusses some of the areas for further research and development needed to put a wellbeing approach into practice.

  • A wellbeing approach may require considering a range of outcomes, some of which may be beyond the remit, expertise or responsibility of a government agency or ministry with a narrow focus. The ease of making decisions that cut across areas needs to be improved.
  • Much progress has been made in developing a methodology for quantifying the wellbeing impacts of policy. Further work is needed to promote implementation.
    – In 2020 we noted that there wasn’t yet a standardised method accepted by HM Treasury but there is now Green Book Supplementary Guidance that supports the use of wellbeing evidence and data robustly, consistently and with confidence.
  • Wellbeing inequality is difficult to quantify, requiring further development of ways to measure, understanding and tackle differences. Building on our 2017 exploratory work, Mission 8 of the Levelling Up programme seeks to progress this, aiming to improve wellbeing in every area of the UK and reducing the gap between high and low by 2023.

Chapter four of the full report covers these and other challenges, opportunities and areas for further research.

Updated set of evidence informed priority areas

We have been growing the evidence base of what works to improve wellbeing, since our creation nine years ago. This learning from across sectors and across the UK, has allowed us to build on the Commission for Wellbeing and Policy in our report and develop the WISER wellbeing priorities. 

The updated set of evidence informed priority areas and their implications for creating wellbeing policy:

  • Work – aim for stable employment and good work, such as jobs with purpose, challenge, decent income and social connections.
  • Income – promote balanced, stable economic growth, and invest in health and welfare systems.
  • Society and governance – measure wellbeing as a policy goal and provide data. Devolve power and control.
  • Emotional, mental health – treat mental ill health as professionally as physical ill health. Build social and emotional skills in schools.
  • Relationships and communities – promote volunteering culture, develop opportunities for building social connections which will also help to address loneliness. Create a built environment that is sociable and green.

For more details on these priorities, see the conclusion section of the full report.

Further resources

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