Happiness means looking past the pound signs

A 40-strong forum of experts will explore new models for measuring national wellbeing but focusing on its £2m price tag misses the point of looking beyond money
finger pound keyboard
Fingers and eyes have clearly been on the pound signs but the ONS and a new forum want the nation to look beyond that and to think about what makes us happy instead.

When the government revealed its £2m plan to measure national wellbeing in November, the announcement was greeted by at best, bemusement, at worst, derision.

How, asked commentators, can an intangible concept be measured? Amid the public funding cuts, many questioned the £2m allocation.

But three weeks ago the Office for National Statistics (ONS), charged with the project, put some meat on the bones of the plan by announcing a 40-strong Measuring National Wellbeing Forum. The forum is part of the ONS's national debate project, a drive to involve the public and experts in deciding how to measure wellbeing.

But what will the forum do? What indicators are being developed and how worthwhile is measuring wellbeing?

It is worth noting that many countries are looking beyond a sole focus on orthodox indicators of prosperity, such as gross domestic product (GDP). France and Canada for example, are also exploring ways to measure wellbeing.

Such measures capture feelings about work, relationships and psychology. In theory, a government that uses such indicators will not assume it knows what boosts wellbeing, but uses official data on its population's perceptions of wellbeing to formulate policy.

Jil Matheson, the national statistician who chairs the forum, says it's aim is to come up with questions for the UK's Integrated Household Survey, the biggest source of social data after the census.

The Forum's remit

Forum members have backgrounds in business, universities, government and the voluntary sector. Members include Sir Stuart Rose, former Marks & Spencer chief executive and chair of Business in the Community, as well as economists such as Amartya Sen, Richard Layard and Kate Barker.

The forum will meet every two months in London and will communicate in between.

The group's role, according to its terms of reference is "to discuss the main themes emerging from the national debate and help design new measures".

It has met once, discussing what people should be asked about their lives and how to standardise questions so international comparisons are possible. The forum is expected to report back initial thoughts in the summer.

But why a forum? Aileen Simkins, director of ONS' operations, economic, labour and social analysis directorate, says a wide mix of people is important.

"We've a range of experts from lots of different fields that will help us think about what we're doing; they're a sounding board." Simkins adds that the aim is to get the "technical" number-crunchers talking to the non-technical experts, ensuring the focus is on plain English.

As for the forum's cost, the spending can be seen as an investment in ensuring that government spending is targeted appropriately.

Simkins explains the £2m covers spending on meeting venues and travel and developing and publishing the measures: "The debate is not expensive; we want impact, but we're not throwing money at it."

Other wellbeing models

As for existing wellbeing indicators, the ONS says that 16 recent UK surveys, for example, were found to include at least one subjective wellbeing question, for example in Defra's Sustainable Development Indicators. Overseas examples include Bhutan which has a Gross Domestic Happiness measure.

Simkins says it is too early to say what existing models might be useful. The fact that models exist is both a blessing and a curse; while it is useful to have evidence available, there are a multitude of different measurements to root through.

One useful piece of work was the 2009 National Accounts of Wellbeing analysis by the New Economics Foundation (Nef).

Surveying 22 European countries, it sets out a framework for how the different elements of people's experience can be measured and presents wellbeing, as Juliet Michaelson, project manager at nef's centre for wellbeing, says, "not merely as momentary happiness, but as a multi-faceted concept, which crucially includes how people interact with the world around them".

Nef splits the measurement between personal wellbeing, which includes people's experiences of their positive and negative emotions, satisfaction, vitality, resilience, self-esteem and sense of purpose, and social wellbeing, consisting of supportive relationships, trust and belonging.

Researchers also developed an interactive website to measure wellbeing and compare it to national results.

Crucially, the Nef report stresses the need "to stimulate debate about the role of wellbeing measures in matters of national policy" and "to communicate about it in a way which highlights its relevance to people's day-to-day life."

As for other public and social policy indicators, Social Return on Investment measure (SROI) might be an interesting tool but Michaelson says wheareas it "converts impact to monetary value" the point of the ONS exercise is to look beyond a solely financial measurement.

Therein lies the biggest challenge; capturing public attention. Imagine how powerful it would be if people felt ownership of their wellbeing data and used official statistics to check how far government policy targeted services that boost wellbeing.

A public debate held at the LSE last week signalled how keen the number-crunchers are to engage the public. Simkins points out that "public debates are really different for the ONS."

Government accountability

While policymakers will have to widen their horizons beyond GDP, the public should also shift its perception of ONS data; comprehensive statistics about national wellbeing are not simply for the state but, as Nef's Michaelson says, "a resource to hold government to account".

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