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Measuring wellbeing matters, but…

Just as GDP is not the only way to measure progress and development, measuring wellbeing is not the only way to understand it. We just need to remember the benefits or the advantages or qualitative research too.

Asking closed or even open questions through a survey or questionnaires certainly has its advantages but having a more detailed conversation, conducting a fuller interview and getting to the bottom of some of these issues, or at least understanding why, is also important, especially for something as complex as wellbeing.

Over the last few years at CLES, we’ve been working out ways to measure, value, assess and understand what wellbeing gains. Indeed it’s really useful to know what impact certain policies, interventions, activities, actions have on how people feel, how they live their life and what they do as a result. We’ve used measures much like those proposed but we’ve also used interviews, focus groups and much more besides. Both quantitative measures and qualitative research are valid and we mustn’t forget that. Hopefully the rewriting of The Green Book – the government guide on appraisal and evaluation of all policies, programmes and projects – won’t either.

In terms of wellbeing, few people dispute its value and understand that improving wellbeing is a positive thing. Although in the past the focus has tended to be on material wellbeing, more and more people are coming round to the idea of nurturing personal and social wellbeing. However, what is less understood is how we can use a better understanding to influence policy and practice in a whole range of public policy areas.

Much has been made of a measure of general wellbeing as an antidote, addition or alternative to GDP in measuring overall progress. Indeed, in his speech launching a consultation on how to measure Britain’s wellbeing, David Cameron echoed Robert Kennedy and this is how it has been applied in France.

But I think it can also tell us a lot about particular policies, interventions and programmes as well as the impact of everything taken together. The reform of ‘public’ service design and delivery is one area that I see measuring wellbeing as being key. With an increasingly diverse range of commissioners and providers, understanding the impact of these services is even more important. We need to know not only that the services themselves are working but that they are having the desired impact more broadly, on individuals and communities. For example, how they make people feel, what they are able to do as a result, the wider social impact and what difference it makes to people’s goals and intentions.

Whole population studies and those just looking at a subset of the population both have their benefits. It just depends on what you are trying to do. If you are looking at the wholesale direction of policy within a country then of course you need a set of measures, and I think it has to be a set – there’s no way just a single question, item or issues can encompass this massive area.

Work we have done for the Big Lottery Fund uses takes this form and previous indicators from things like the Place Survey or national indicator set went part way to doing this. A household survey takes on board this type of ‘set’ approach will be strong. The ONS is consulting on exactly what we should measure here.

What the government’s announcement will mean for those of us interested measuring wellbeing is we will have something to benchmark against. We will be able to say not only that certain activities or interventions have had an impact or not for those involved – directly or indirectly – but also how those people compare to the general population, both at that point and in terms of trends.

Other more specific ways that exploring wellbeing can help shape and assess policy and practice include:

Targeting services, reducing inequalities and preventative work – we already know the benefits of having someone close by to call on in an emergency or the advantage of getting out and talking to friends, family or those that have the same interests as you. But knowing who or where those that don’t are, and targeting services interventions at them, is potentially powerful stuff. Just like in the past we have targeted health services at those most at risk of developing diabetes we can now do the same for social isolation and community cohesion, for example. With an ageing population this will become increasingly important. The same goes for a whole heap of other services and interventions. With limited public resources and the need to deliver more for less this is really crucial.

Assessing the real value of services – by fully understanding the wellbeing impacts of a particular service/project or intervention we are also in much better position to assess the real value of the service in terms of costs and benefits, non market values or return on investment, however you wish to phrase it. Guidance on how to assess wellbeing returns will be in the updated Green Book or you might be interested to know that CLES Consulting has been doing this for a while now.

All in all, the announcement of the National Wellbeing Project is most definitely positive news but we need to think about how best to use it and not to forget the benefits of assessing wellbeing at the local level while we look at what ONS are going nationally.

If you’re interested in measuring wellbeing then please respond the ONS consultation. Or if you want to talk through any of these thoughts please call me on 0161 236 7036 or email me

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