The OECD has announced its 3rd OECD World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy which will ask the key questions ‘Is life getting better?’ ‘Are our societies really making progress?’ and ‘What are the new paradigms to measure progress?’. The Forum will challenge some contemporary notions of societal progress and identify appropriate ways to measure the effective improvement of people’s lives.
This has clear links to nef‘s National Accounts of Well-being work, which proposes some solutions for the sorts of measurement paradigms that would help to track real progress. The Forum, being held in Busan, Korea on the 27th to 30th October 2009, is expected to attract 1500 high level participants, including politicians, policy makers, heads of international organisations, opinion leaders, Nobel laureates, statisticians, academics, journalists and representatives of civil society from all over the world.
This week saw the inaugural meeting of the first ever UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics. The group aims to challenge GDP as the government’s main indicator of national success and promote new measures of societal progress. The group will discuss issues such as the establishment of national well-being measures, the economic costs of stress and policies to promote well-being.
Initiated by Jo Swinson MP, the group includes MPs and peers from all of the main political parties and will set out to drive the issue of well-being up the government’s agenda. With a specific aim to examine the measurement of population well-being, the group is helping meet nef’s call for parliamentarians, among others, to engage in ‘dialogue about the what, why and how of National Accounts of Well-being’.
As part of a growing global movement of academics, policy-makers, commentators and politicians, the group will set out to:
- Promote the enhancement of well-being as an important government goal
- Encourage the adoption of well-being indicators as complimentary measures of progress to GDP
- Promote policies designed to enhance well-being.
“In the last 50 years, people in the UK have got richer but no happier. To improve the lives of people in this country, we need to move beyond mere calculations of material wealth and start looking at wider issues affecting quality of life” said Jo Swinson MP, who was elected chair of the all-party group at its first meeting on Monday 23 March.
The group’s members include Labour peer and well-being economics expert, Lord Richard Layard. The centre for well-being at nef is acting as its secretariat.
With President Sarkozy’s international Commission on the limits of GDP due to report this April, and as a wide range of commentators are publicly questioning the efficacy of GDP as a measure of progress, the first ever parliamentary group on well-being economics is a welcome addition to efforts to drive alternative measures of progress further up the political agenda in the UK.
The BBC home affairs editor Mark Easton has made the ‘fascinating National Accounts of Well-being site’ the topic of his blog for a second time. He demonstrates the real value of how the site allows users to dig into the National Accounts of Well-being data and use it to examine well-being across Europe in great detail. Easton delves into the self-esteem data which he uses to create his ‘Map of the Week’, drawing attention to the varying patterns in the differences in self-esteem between gender and age groups in different countries. He points out, for example, the sizeable difference in self-esteem levels between men and women in the UK, and the variation in gender patterns across countries.
He also raises the issue of whether some of the differences he notes could be due to translation issues. Support for this theory comes from our own observation that while responses to the two European Social Survey questions about self-esteem are correlated for individuals within countries, there is no correlation between the average scores of countries on each measure. While this might be seen as a reason to criticise the data, it also demonstrates the importance of our approach which uses more than one question to measure the constructs within the National Accounts of Well-being framework. This sort of problem also demonstrates the value of detailed attention being paid to the National Accounts of Well-being data so that improvements for the future can be identified.
Since the launch of the report and the website last Saturday, nef‘s proposal for National Accounts of Well-being has been receiving plenty of attention from the media. Click on the hyperlinks in the text below to view the articles or programmes.
The most comprehensive coverage came from the BBC. They did two television interviews with Nic Marks, the founder of nef‘s centre for well-being and co-author of the report, once at nef offices and again in the BBC studios. Nic was also interviewed on radio, as was Dr Sam Thompson, another of the report’s co-authors. The BBC News website has a good article about National Accounts, with the slightly misleading headline ‘Britons bored but happy’. The confusion seems to stem from the fact that British people perform reasonable well on ‘positive emotions’, what might conventionally be called ‘feeling happy’. But even though we come above the European average on this measure, we still come more than 0.5 points lower than Switzerland, the highest scoring country in this category (a meaningful difference on our 0-10 scale). So while we’re not performing as poorly as some countries, we’re hardly as happy as we could be. It’s also worth remembering that positive emotions are only one component of overall well-being.
The BBC has its own resident happiness expert in home affairs editor Mark Easton, who has presented the BBC2 documentary The Happiness Formula back in 2006. Judging from his blog article on National Accounts of Well-being, Mark has enjoyed playing around with the tools on this website. He presents a chart of Europe’s levels of trust and belonging as his ‘Map of the Week’, and discusses the debates around research carried out by Richard Easterlin on why ever increasing amounts of money can’t make us happy.
The newspapers seemed to relish the gloomiest parts of the report. The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail both focused on what the report said about Britain’s young people having the lowest levels of trust and belonging anywhere in Europe, while The Guardian described how Britons are ‘tired, suspicious, bored and lonely’.
National Accounts of Well-being have also received international recognition thanks in part to being picked up major news agencies like Reuters and the Press Association. Stories about National Accounts have appeared in Germany, Poland, Norway, Switzerland and Qatar.
The end of November 2010 brought the announcement that the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) is going to start measuring subjective well-being to help guide national policy. At a conference at the Treasury on 25 November, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about how well-being indicators will be used as a new measure of the country’s progress. He argued that government has the power to help improve well-being by creating a climate in the country more conducive to the good life. In his speech Mr Cameron talked about a shift to ‘measuring our progress as a country not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving…not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life’. He also talked about the importance of government policy supporting people to feel in control and make choices, and having a sense of purpose and belonging. This is an understanding of well-being reflected in the National Accounts of Well-being research.
This UK announcement follows in the footsteps of a report commissioned last year by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and written by Nobel economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, about alternative measures of progress. And around the globe, governments are changing the way they measure how well their country is doing. In Ecuador and Bolivia the indigenous concept of “buen vivir” (living well) has been incorporated into state constitutions.
The ONS, lead by Jil Matheson, the National Statistician, has been given the task of choosing several subjective well-being questions to be included in the Integrated Household Survey, the biggest source of social data on the UK after the census. The process has begun with a public consultation, involving both the general population and specialists, about what the focus of these questions should be. The subjective well-being questions will be put together by the ONS and will most likely be used to create a composite measure of national well-being.
To join the national debate and respond to the consultation, go to the ONS well-being national debate website.
To see how nef has responded to the announcement read Juliet Michealson’s blog for Left Foot Forward and Head of the Centre for Well-being at nef, Charles Seaford’s blog on attending the first meeting of the ONS Advisory Forum.