A thousand wellbeing flowers are blooming
Mexico is a country of vivid colours, and its bright vibrant flowers are a welcome sight when you’ve come from autumnal England. So it was a fitting country for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Fifth World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy, where, indeed it was clear that wellbeing initiatives around the world are starting to bloom.
The OECD’s World Forums have been central to the development of the wellbeing agenda. The first one, in Palermo in 2004, was little more than an exploration of the idea that there are new things that we should be measuring to understand progress. 2007, the Istanbul Declaration was signed by the OECD, the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, the European Commission, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and the World Bank, demonstrating the desire of the signatories to move Beyond GDP. At the last World Forum, in New Delhi in 2012, talk was still focussed on measurement, and how it should be done. But now, in 2015, in Guadalajara in Mexico, data was flowing and the policy implications being considered.
Countries all around the world were starting to measure wellbeing in ways that one could not have imagined a few years ago. Turkey has carried out a survey reaching over 120,000 households so as to be able to map wellbeing across its 81 provinces. In several states across Australia, wellbeing is being assessed for every single child at school. In Ecuador, the 2008 constitution incorporates the concept of Buen Vivir (good living) as their model of development (in opposition to a focus on economic growth) and the statistics department there is busy trying to measure this objective. The tiny Pacific state of Vanuatu, that came top of the first Happy Planet Index in 2006, has started collecting wellbeing data. And in Mexico itself, as well as an impressive network of citizen-led local initiatives measuring wellbeing, the official statistics office published the results of a large scale survey which has allowed them to assess wellbeing across all the 31 states, and explore the relationship between subjective wellbeing and material conditions.
Presenters were beginning to link wellbeing evidence to clear policy implications. Not just academics and think tanks, but political actors as well. UK MP David Lammy talked about supporting active transport, and arts and culture education. Aristoteles Sandoval, the Governor of Jalisco, the state Guadalajara is part of, talked about the need to reduce inequality (as indeed did almost everyone at the event). Sangheon Lee, from the International Labour Organisation highlighted new evidence that job quality does not need to come at the cost of job quantity.
And mechanisms are beginning to be put in place to ensure new data is considered in policy decisions. In Israel, the Ministry for Environmental Protection, Central Bureau of Statistics and Economic Council are creating a structure of wellbeing indicators which government ministers will be held to account on. In Finland, the Prime Minister’s office is identifying 25-30 indicators on five key themes with the same purpose.
The What Works Centre, which is of course one of the UK’s mechanisms for getting wellbeing data used, was well represented at the conference. Chair Dr. Paul Litchfield spoke on a plenary panel about behaviour insights (I also chaired the session). Lord Richard Layard, who leads the cross-cutting evidence programme, spoke at a session on the importance of subjective wellbeing for the sustainable development agenda. And Lord Gus O’Donnell, Patron of the What Works Centre, spoke at a plenary session on how alternative indicators were already being used in policy.
Slowly but surely, wellbeing is getting into policy. The UK is making important contributions to this global movement, but there’s a lot we can learn from elsewhere too. The What Works Centre will be keeping an eye on all this to make sure we do know what works to improve wellbeing.