Though I live and breathe a life centred around well-being, it came as a pleasant surprise when I received an invite to attend the OECD’s latest gathering to find out about the latest on well-being policy.
But then I remembered that, before I disappeared into a rather strange realm and spent 18 months cycling to Bhutan, I was a fairly serious academic, having many years ago even spent time at the OECD discussing well-being policy issues. Christ, knows what I am now, but who cares, I was there, and I was happy to be so! The important thing for me is how is everyone else, both inside the room and out, and are we any closer to creating societies where well-being is allowed to be at the heart of our decisions.
Very brief history
In 2011, off the back of international debate about what societal progress actually is (i.e. not exclusively economic growth, as it has been for far too long for most people to be deeply happy about), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) launched a framework by which countries might think about the well-being of their citizens. The OECD’s Better Life Index incorporated many elements of what we know to be important in life (through extensive consultation, discussion, and research) and compiled a series of indicators that could be used to understand the quality of people’s lives.
The idea was that one of the biggest barriers, or perhaps excuses, to not implementing policies that improve people’s well-being was that we didn’t have the metrics in place to call such policies into account. Thus, by putting the metrics in place this would at least remove this excuse, and hopefully assist countries in developing well-being based policy. Judging from this week’s event, “Putting Wellbeing Metrics into Action”, where some of the OECD’s member countries had the opportunity to share what they have been up to, it seems progress has been made.
It seems there is hope. Though, of course, let’s not forget to be at least a little cynical.
Economies of well-being, not economies of growth
There was a fairly broad consensus across the days that well-being should be central to the purpose or mission of a government. For decades, many in positions of influence have acted, though not necessarily themselves genuinely believed, that a key to improving the lives of the people they have influence over would be to bring economic prosperity.
In fact, you’d be forgiven for not believing that there wasn’t any problem that economic growth couldn’t solve. Though, as it turns out, and there is plenty of research to show so, beyond a certain income level, once basic needs are met, ever higher incomes do quite little to improve people’s well-being. And then, of course, there is the cost to our natural environment that jeopardises the sustainability of our present levels of well-being for our future selves, as well as our children and future generations.
Yet, to state that economic growth is a means to an end, rather an end in itself, at this event was somewhat preaching to the converted. There were a few dissenters that seemed to envision well-being as something of an add-on to growth, but with such consensus one has to wonder, given the state of public discourse, about all those who couldn’t be in the room, and even those present that talk one way and walk another.
One of the most important developments that has occurred very recently in well-being policy has been the movement toward constructing well-being budgets. Among OECD member countries New Zealand are leading the way on this, with their Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing the world’s first well-being being budget earlier this year. Naturally, we heard much about this development from New Zealand representatives during the two days, as well as an implied readiness and/or deliberations within other governments of enacting something similar. It is an exciting development.
I’m not that policy literate so much went over my head technically. However, the idea in essence is to determine budgets not just on their economic impact but how public policies and decisions will improve peoples’ lives from a well-being perspective. Importantly how policies and decisions affect well-being beyond the spending period and future generations will also be incorporated into this. Within an exclusively economic framework many costs, often because they can’t be quantified in monetary terms, get left out.
Though moving over to well-being budgets might sound simple and even an obvious move, as the Chief economist of New Zealand pointed out, a well-being budget is in practice complicated and difficult to enact. In treading new ground there is considerable work to be done and that, alongside the inertia of overhauling policy, will mean that for some time there might not seem to be any real changes.
Nevertheless, the move to well-being budgets appears to be absolutely essential for well-being policy. As the head of the OECD exclaimed in the opening address, from a politician’s perspective “unless something is captured in the budget, it isn’t important.”
Legislation for well-being policy
Politicians ought to care about well-being since it is one of the most important predictors of well-being. However, there is not much incentive for politicians to consider the well-being of citizens beyond the political cycle. As much as many politicians like to do the “right thing”, they also like to be re-elected. As such, a policy that raises the well-being of people in the short-term, regardless of long-term consequences, will nearly always be tempting. Well-being policy therefore would be supported by legislation that ensures politicians directly consider the consequences of various policies to well-being. The enactment of well-being budgets is certainly part of that, but politicians also need to be called to account.
I knew Wales had been up doing a few things on the well-being front lately, but I hadn’t reckoned on being as inspired as I was to hear Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner talk about her role. Her role is to consult with the Welsh government on how policies affect well-being. Though her role was created by the Welsh government in 2016 as part of the Future Generations Act, the role is independent to the government. She therefore calls the government to account over how various policies will influence the well-being of citizens, particularly in the long-term. I am convinced, having listened to her talk, that every nation needs such a commissioner. I think it self-evidence that for far too long the voice of future generations has been excluded from our political dialogue.
There was also a lesson to be learnt from France here. Though much had been done to establish a well-being framework there, there was little political will to enact on it at the time. Though had some legislation been passed prior that obliged the government at the time to care about well-being then perhaps there would have been a different outcome. Though not discussed at this gathering, Scotland get praise here. Scotland’s 2015 Community Empowerment Act ensures that present and successive governments report on their National Performance Framework, a multidimensional well-being metric that has been developed there.
How are we measuring well-being?
Scotland are one of the few countries that have developed a multidimensional well-being framework of their own and are integrating it into policy. In conjunction with their national reporting Scotland have, as their Chief Economist explained at the event, created a parallel framework that businesses can use to report on their activities. This, I think, will be important. It is one thing to have governments directing policies towards greater well-being, but businesses also need to be able to get in on the well-being agenda. Since organisations both do care about their wider impact on society and employee well-being is important for business success (staff retention and productivity), there is hopefully going to be a strong appetite for business involvement.
Sadly, there was very little else said across the days about how to get businesses behind the well-being agenda, and neither was there much said about the role of the media in the well-being debate. There is a major concern, I think, with how well-being is seen within business and the media. It is unfortunate that well-being still has something of what might be called a fluffy image. Yet, as came up in the days generally people do understand well-being and its importance. Many people, however, being new to the well-being conversation do not understand the technical well-being jargon and so there is still much work to do with communication.
One challenge within the well-being policy community seems to be the best way to report national well-being to the public. This is a major stumbling block and needs to be rectified – not only to progress the policy debate but, I think, to move away from the charge of fluffiness. There seemed enormous discord in the room on this, though I am certainly biased in that assessment by the immense discord I felt in myself. Some seem adamant that the only valid way to measure well-being is to ask people how they feel about their lives.
Listening to how people feel is certainly an important aspect and, as its proponents make clear, since people answer it in a way that reflects what is important to them, it democratises well-being. Yet, it is answers to such questions that, as far as I can see, so often get the charge of fluffiness. Self-reported well-being can be useful in helping us determine what is important to people and to calculate costs that are not ordinarily quantified, yet the measures are too simplistic, don’t fully account for future and environmental impacts, and are not directly linked to policy.
What really agitated me about this discussion was how this was argued as the only way, and I’d go as far to say proponents of this perspective did not appear prepared to listen and consider others on this matter. This will impede the well-being policy agenda. There has to be room for all voices, and a well-being agenda has to make room for everyone. That is the whole point, isn’t it?
Fundamental shifts and the leadership of small countries
What seems clear is that the movement toward well-being policy would lead to fundamental change in the operation of government. Currently, government departments operate in isolation of one another. If there are houses to be built then when we consider well-being it is not just a concern for the minister responsible for housing, but also transport, the environment, and culture, among others. Thus, well-being is set to join up thinking about policy making and encourage collaboration rather than competition.
In some countries it seems like there are already sizeable shifts taking place. One important development recently is the collaboration of governments that have declared themselves to be well-being governments. Iceland, New Zealand, and Scotland, are taking strong leadership on well-being and are part of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (an initiative set up to foster collaboration around well-being policy – a bit like the G7 economies but focused on well-being not the economy).
Interestingly, as Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon points out in a recent TED talk on “why governments should prioritise well-being”, these three countries are all currently led by women. One thing I do like about the well-being policy agenda is that it is well represented by women. Though older white men still do seem to do a disproportionate amount of post-talk commenting, as pointed out and rectified in the final session chaired by Chief Executive of Happy City, and there is substantial lack of ethnic diversity. And it is probably safe to say I was probably the only person currently without a concrete home in the room.
It was also many times noted that it is smaller countries that are leading the way on well-being. It is a curious observation. One proposition made for this was that big countries don’t care about well-being. What big countries care about, it was suggested, is power, and so conversations in those countries are about dominance, military strategy, and how to maintain power. Small countries don’t want to take over other countries, rather they want to live a nice life.
Hope and challenge for the future
Overall, I left the conference feeling hopeful. It seems like there is a lot of progress across the world. Of course Bhutan has been doing much of this for years. Yet Bhutan is a non-OECD member country, and is in a different league having done things the other way round by beginning with the philosophical concept of maximising well-being and only later developing the metrics. In any case it was a gathering to talk about recent progress. And in that sense it felt promising. Though, I wonder, how much of it was just rhetoric?
At events like this I often think about the extent to which the people attending are living in line with the core subject matter. Safe to say I placed well-being at the heart of my time in Paris and my journey there. I travelled there slowly and with low impact, I took the time to connect with friends old and new along the way, spent a few days at a Buddhist retreat centre, and in Paris I even stayed with a friend who had an awesome permaculture garden.
As much as I saw some value of sitting in a room with no windows for two days listening to fairly technical talks it wasn’t exactly fun. I had to remind myself to take care of myself and there was no encouragement or helpful advice from the organisers to do so throughout the days. We could have been reminded about the importance of stepping out for some fresh air, been taken through a mindfulness exercise, encouraged to move about a bit during talks, or even had at least one leftfield talk (perhaps, I wonder, whether a story or two about a cycle journey to Bhutan could have foot the bill for that). I do think if we are going to talk about what is important for well-being we have to noticeably apply at least some of that talk to our own lives.
When surrounded by people talking about well-being one can easily begin to think that more is happening than there actually is. It is important to look at what is actually happening. Generally, I would suppose that most people in the world will currently have little idea that well-being policy even exists, let alone have their lives directly influenced by a well-being policy.
It is clear that making this shift will take considerable time as there is so much to iron out. As a still recovering academic I’ve not had a great deal of contact with the inner workings of policy, and perhaps a major learning for me has been that there are many stages to policy making. The deliberation at all these stages might seem like unnecessary bureaucracy but in fact these checks and balances are important to prevent something truly hideous happening. Though that being said I am wondering, looking at the present state of society and the rampant consumerism that seems to feed off our weaknesses and savage the environment, that something truly hideous has already been happening.
And on that note – let’s breathe! I am hopeful – my own well-being is truly at an all-time high and that didn’t happen by accident. It is because of help from others.
***I am happy to hear feedback and comments on this post – particularly if you were there and I got something wrong.