Can well being be saved from obscurity?


Yesterday morning I chaired a joint event between the Office of National Statistics and the Economic and Social Research Council. First off were presentations from two enthusiastic DEFRA civil servants exploring the links and tensions between a focus on well-being and on sustainability. Although what they said about mapping ecosystems, understanding the social value of the environment and a ‘capitals based’ approach to accounting for national resources was interesting, and included reference to documents produced by the Treasury, it also suggested that DEFRA – rather like DfID – is a kind of alternative subsystem within Whitehall, very committed and progressive but also, apparently, somewhat marginal to the main business of Government (I hope I’m being unfair about this, if so do put me right).

The main conclusions I drew from a subsequent discussion were sobering. Although it is heartening that ONS has now started publishing the findings of its research , there turned out to be something of a crisis of confidence among the community of wellbeing watchers. In part this is the reliability of the data, in part the contrast between the fine-grained differences between conventional ‘objective’ measures of progress and more subjective values and feelings-based data, in part the fact that most of the early findings from the ONS research are rtaher bland and predictable. These factors add to worries about the credibility of the whole project in the eyes of the media, the public and policy makers.

As the conversation started to sag I took my responsibilities as chair seriously and tried to develop a more positive way of thinking about the impact of well being-based approaches.

Here it is.

Making the case for a more values-based approach to policy and measuring progress involves three different tasks. First, there is the painstaking long-term challenge of developing and gaining official acceptable for a new set of metrics. This will sometimes seem impossible and at other times futile, but in the end it can succeed. Crucially, advocates of different ways of measuring progress should comfort themselves with the knowledge that that it took statisticians decades to agree an accepted measure for conventional economic growth.

Second, part of the task is simply to challenge conventional debates; not to provide easy answers but to ask tricky questions. One of my favorites is how politicians think we can combine a pursuit of social mobility with increasing well being, when behavioral economists have shown that loss aversion is a more powerful emotion than pleasure at gains. In a society with perfect relative social mobility the people going up would be a bit happier but the equal number going down would be a lot more miserable. This doesn't mean we should abandon the goals of social mobility or increasing well being, but that we need a more nuanced debate about what we mean by both terms.

Third, in the shorter term (while we are waiting out the decades before we have accepted international well being measures) it is still possible to use basic insights into well being to shape policy. Two examples: what we know about the long term impact on young people of protracted periods out of work should make it absolutely imperative that we tackle the problem even at the expense of resources dedicated to unemployment in older cohorts; also, the data showing a rapid fall off in well being among the very elderly provides the basis for paternalistic interventions to incentivise people to provide for their care needs towards the end of life (as the Dilnot Commission has advocated).

I can’t say I provided a framework to save well being from its detractors but at least people seemed to go off to lunch a little bit happier.

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