16 October 2017

Wellbeing and social progress: using convening power to catalyse change

Wellbeing is at the heart of what we do at the Carnegie UK Trust.  Our Trust Deed, written by Andrew Carnegie, was far ahead of its time in charging us with the duty to “improve wellbeing”.  At that time, 100 years ago, wellbeing was not a common form of words for the activities of charitable organisations.  So when the term began to be used as a way of understanding social progress in the 2000s, we took a particular interest.

In the UK and in other developed economies, spiralling levels of inequality meant that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had lost its connection with the experiences of individual citizens.  Despite economic growth, many felt their lives were getting worse, not better. The international debate on the limits of GDP as the core measure of social progress was led by the Stiglitz Sen-Fitoussi Commission, instigated by President Sarkozy of France. Their conclusion was that wellbeing was a far more useful concept than GDP, bringing together and balancing economic, social, and environmental factors to ‘measure what matters’.  A framework for measuring wellbeing, they contended, would ultimately lead to better decisions that improve outcomes for citizens.

Taking our lead from that Commission, the Trust established and ran successful roundtable programmes in Scotland and, separately in Northern Ireland to identify recommendations to improve measurement of wellbeing. While both roundtables focused on measurement at the start, the mechanism provided an opportunity for the members to think more broadly about social progress and about systems of government that support greater wellbeing.  We found quickly that the strength of wellbeing, its multi-dimensionality, created quite a challenge in policy development terms.  In developing activities to promote wellbeing as a mechanism for social change, we were going to have to involve people from a range of professions and sectors and we were going to have to actively engage with the policy making process.

Many in the philanthropy sector acknowledge their convening power, but this was brought home to us in our work in Northern Ireland where the roundtable mechanism succeeded in bringing together representatives from two political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. Together with academics, non-governmental organisations and civil servants, they were able to discuss what they wanted for the people of Northern Ireland away from the often tense political environment.  This type of leadership is critical for a wellbeing agenda to prosper. Our wider international research on wellbeing frameworks found that political leadership, from all parties and at all levels of government, is required to drive the wellbeing debate and champion the use of wellbeing data in policy development and evaluation. Adopting a serious approach to promoting wellbeing requires changes to conventional policymaking processes and ways of understanding the world. Without leadership to drive through change, new, good quality data on wellbeing will ultimately not be influential because it will not be acted upon.

Our second challenge was engaging in real world policy change which does not follow a linear process.  Our international research set out a series of steps to embed a wellbeing approach in government (our initial cycle was published in 2012, refined in our work with the OECD in 2016 as represented in the Figure).  Our policy development work in Scotland taught us to take a flexible approach to this in practice.  One of the most important steps we set out was to ensure meaningful engagement and communication with citizens to inform and legitimise the approach.  We drew attention to this gap in Scotland through our roundtable report (in 2011), and again in 2013 and 2014.  We were able to work in partnership with the Scottish Government and Oxfam Scotland to engage with the public in 2016.  Why the delay?  Well firstly, the Scottish wellbeing framework had been established for a number of years before our work began, there was no compelling reason to follow the steps that we set out retrospectively; secondly, the Scottish electoral cycles and the independence referendum in 2014 took priority over this type of public engagement exercise.  The breakthrough came when we were able to capitalise on a legislative opportunity with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, where we successfully argued that the Framework should be statutory and based on the views of the public.

So has our work confirmed what the Stiglitz Sen-Fitoussi Commission imagined as the result of measuring what matters and led to better decision making by governments?  It is too early to say in Northern Ireland but from our work in Scotland, and our recent research with the OECD on cities andregions using wellbeing frameworks, we can confidently state that a wellbeing approach can contribute to effective decision-making in a difficult financial climate.  It does this by placing an emphasis on prevention and early intervention, encouraging different state actors to work together to achieve outcomes and provides a new mechanism to explore and compare the value of government initiatives.  As an operating Trust, these activities also provided us with the opportunity to prove that intervening at a strategic, policy level, can have real and lasting impacts on citizens wellbeing.


Jen Wallace

Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust