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Does what gets measured get done

Two weeks ago The Legatum Institute’s Commission on Wellbeing and Policy published its final report.

The commission called for wellbeing to be a central goal in policy making and illustrated the strengths and limitations of wellbeing analysis. Rob Newton, Joint Health and Wellebing Officer for the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Leeds Met and the Health and Wellbeing Board at Leeds City Council, considers why measuring wellbeing is important.

Using GDP as the sole measure for the ‘success’ of nations is now broadly accepted as being a redundant tool. Rather than attempting to maximize GDP, most academics accept that we should be seeking to increase individual prosperity and wellbeing.

However, this is not straightforward. Whilst GDP is well-defined, clear cut and relatively simple to measure, wellbeing is multi-faceted, ill-defined and subjective.

It is an old adage of performance management that ‘what we can measure gets measured’ and ‘what gets measured gets done’. A potential problem then; if we want to improve wellbeing and put it at the heart of policy making, how can we measure it in a systematic and reliable way?

The OECD has produced what should be seen as the definitive guide on how to measure subjective wellbeing. Issues remain though about how to make comparisons over a long period of time when expectations change down generations. To quote the comedian Louis CK, "everything's amazing and nobody's happy". (He recalled a fellow aeroplane passenger complaining that the in-flight WiFi didn't work. "But you're sitting in a chair in the sky!")

Neither does chasing indicators result in improved outcomes. Those in local authorities who produced reams of data for the now defunct National Indicator Set will know that a lot got measured but a lot did not necessarily get done.

Measuring wellbeing is still important and if carefully considered, there are still contributions to inform policy making. We must also consider principles of how policy is designed in the first place in addition to how it is evaluated.

On a local level, the establishment of Health and Wellbeing Boards and the transition of Public Health into local authorities have helped to put wellbeing at the heart of local decision making. Local partnerships can take place-based leadership roles with a social determinants approach to policy making. The Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy is a mechanism to design services around wellbeing outcomes.

Nationally, discussion turns to what the overall goals are for our society and how policy can enable people to lead more satisfying lives. By measuring wellbeing and making it a major criterion in policy choice, national and local leadership can embed the development of a more social model of health.

Possibly a more useful maxim than “what gets measured gets done” is William Blake’s quote on Newtonian science:

“What is now proved was once only imagined.”

Organisations that work on the ‘health and wellbeing’ agenda are in the business of positive social change. A vision for wellbeing at the start of programmes is as important as effective evaluation at their end. Our judgments are based on both scientific and social values. To make decisions for innovation that works for the good of people, wellbeing must be a major policy goal.

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About the Author

Leeds Beckett University

Rob Newton

Rob Newton is a former Health and Wellebing Officer for the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Leeds Met and also part of the the Health and Wellbeing Board at Leeds City Council.

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