If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy and inspires your hopes.

Andrew Carnegie

Over the past decade, the three devolved legislatures of the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) have embarked on substantial changes in how they understand, measure and contribute to social progress . This reframing of the role of government can broadly be described as a wellbeing approach, consisting of a measurement framework and a set of public policy reforms aiming to improve wellbeing.

Their stories are well known locally, and to each other, but less well known in England where much of the apparatus of UK policy analysis takes place, and internationally, where often they are seen as tiers of regional government and hence operate ‘below the radar’. Within the UK, much of the literature focuses, understandably, on the UK Government ’s approach and the developments within the Office for National Statistics , the emergence of What Works Wellbeing and the work of the Cabinet Office. This book seeks to redress that imbalance.

For readers less familiar with the story of devolution in the UK, Chapter 2 begins with an introduction to devolution and the chapters on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all begin with short summaries of the context in which their governments are operating.

The development of a wellbeing approach to public policy in the devolved legislatures is a function of the maturing of these governments and evidence of their desire to work differently to the UK state from which they are devolved. The governments sought to capitalise on their relatively small size by developing a ‘whole of government approach ’ to public policy, underpinned by a framework that sets a single vision and tracks progress towards it.

In implementation, the approach challenges traditional governance models and demands integration between devolved and local government (vertical integration ) and between different departments of government, services and professionals (horizontal integration ). It raises interesting questions about the relationships between the three devolved jurisdictions and the extent to which they inspire and learn from each other, as well as providing insight into their relationship with the UK state.

The key question that this book seeks to answer is:

  1. i.

    To what extent, and why, have wellbeing approaches emerged in the devolved jurisdictions?

Linked to this are two secondary questions:

  1. ii.

    What has been the impact of the different approaches to wellbeing for policy development and evaluation?

  2. iii.

    To what extent have the various actors (Scottish Government , Welsh Government , Northern Ireland Executive ) collaborated with each other on the development of wellbeing policy? And what does this tell us about the use of devolved jurisdictions as ‘policy laboratories’ within the UK state?

This book arises from my previous research and my involvement in developments in two out of the three devolved jurisdictions (Scotland and Northern Ireland), as Head of Policy for the Carnegie UK Trust (an independent foundation). As May notes: ‘Social policy researchers are neither “culture free” in their interpretations not in their research remits. Superficially similar terms can carry very different meanings and local practices are easily misread’ (2016, p. 457). There is a risk that I simply know more about Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is also a risk that the analysis will be biased either in favour of the jurisdictions I am most familiar with, or against them, as I am more actively involved in discussions around implementation of the frameworks and am privy to the warts-and-all behind-the-scenes conversations. The reader should reflect that I am both a reporter on the process and a participant in the policy process in these jurisdictions.

I have sought to address my own knowledge gaps through interviews with key stakeholders in each of the jurisdictions. In total, 14 interviews were held with senior civil servants, politicians and representatives of non-governmental organisations . As a participant in the policy process, I was able to access the views of people who had been very actively involved in the process of establishing and implementing the three wellbeing frameworks. These included:

  • Sir John Elvidge, former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government .

  • Des McNulty former Member of the Scottish Parliament and Chair of the Finance Committee.

  • Peter Davies, former Sustainable Development Commissioner for Wales.

  • Sophie Howe, Commissioner for Future Generations in Wales.

  • Simon Hamilton, Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and former Minister for Finance and Personnel.

  • Aideen McGinley, Co-Chair of the Carnegie Roundtable on Measuring Wellbeing in Northern Ireland and former Permanent Secretary to the Northern Ireland Executive .

Many of the interviewees waived their anonymity allowing the book to include a number of direct quotes. The detailed description of the process and the analysis carried out owes much to their involvement. A small number of key stakeholders also reviewed drafts to ensure consistency and accuracy. As I noted in the acknowledgements, I am grateful to these people for their insights and expertise. Any remaining inaccuracies or bias are my responsibility alone.

This introductory section begins with a discussion on wellbeing and wellbeing frameworks, followed by a brief outline of the contents of the chapters.

Defining Wellbeing

This book is about the practical application in social policy of a philosophical debate that has run for centuries: what is a good life; and consequently, what is a good society?

Over the past two decades, the word wellbeing has increasingly been used to describe this within public policy. But there remains significant confusion about the core meaning of the term in public policy:

There has been a cacophony of different academic languages, terminologies, different approaches and different purposes. Confusion has arisen for example, where contributors in debates have been talking at crossed purposes because, while they seem to be agreeing about particular issues, there have been fundamental differences in the meanings of core terms that they are using. (McGregor 2015, p. 1)

Despite this, the relevance of the conversation in both policy and people’s individual lives suggests a deep-seated sense of unease. We may not all be talking about the same concept of wellbeing, we may be struggling to deepen our understanding personally and collectively, but we are all seeking to find ways to articulate a sense that ‘all is not well’ (White 2017).

This book is about wellbeing as a concept for understanding social progress . Broadly speaking, there are two concepts of measuring and understanding social progress as wellbeing:

  • Personal wellbeing —measuring the quality of one’s life through subjective measures of life satisfaction and happiness . This was referred to as subjective wellbeing until relatively recently when the Office of National Statistics in the UK changed the terminology to reflect feedback that it was not clear. The term subjective refers to a category of data, personal wellbeing to a further sub-set within that.

  • Societal wellbeing—a set of measures (objective and subjective) that are understood by the society as being essential components of wellbeing. Objective measures are those that are fact-based and observable (educational attainment, income levels). Subjective measures are based on personal opinions, judgements and feelings (perception of crime, satisfaction with services).

There are other concepts of wellbeing in social policy: wellbeing as mental health or more broadly as public health. Walker and John (2012) have provided an in-depth analysis of this shift, from public health as focused on the environment to lifestyle approaches, to the current development of wellbeing as language used to discuss the social determinants of health. Here the hierarchy is important, wellbeing is important because it can help public health practitioners and others to improve health. This differs from the approach of both personal and societal wellbeing where the health of the individual or population is one component of a good life.

Further, wellbeing as wellness is a concept increasingly used to market products and services aimed at improving individuals’ wellbeing, what Sir Michael Aylward has referred to as ‘tawdry self-help books’ (Walker and John 2012, p. ix). Recent technology advances have led to a proliferation of apps and gadgets that promote wellness.

But it is the two concepts of personal and societal wellbeing that seek to describe what a good life is, and what the role of governments is in securing this outcome. The analysis and commentary within this book are limited to these two definitions of wellbeing.

Personal Wellbeing —Living Well

Epicurus saw individual happiness as an end in itself. Developed further by Bentham and Mill, this utilitarian approach focuses on the individual’s emotional state, with a good society being one which maximises the happiness experienced by its citizens. As such it is often referred to as hedonistic wellbeing. In classical utilitarianism , it is not the distribution that matters, merely the total amount of utility. That some are left behind is not necessarily problematic. There are moral objections to a focus on happiness as the goal of society. As Griffin points out, the difficulty is that ‘If “well-being” is defined to include fulfilment of desires that are trivial, abnormal, cheap, disgusting, and immoral, perhaps it is too wide’ (1986, p. 39).

Outside of philosophy , many science fiction writers have tackled this issue, playing with the concepts of personhood, sentience and the good life. Free of the confines of the current world, we have false memories (Blade Runner) and painful memories removed by choice (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), humans engineered without emotion (Equilibrium) and the creation of a market for outsourcing your pain (Standard Loneliness Package). For these writer and film-makers the message is clear: the human condition is complex and multifaceted, and the pursuit of happiness alone is not enough for a meaningful life.

Despite the growth of happiness economics (see for example Layard 2005), few modern interpretations of happiness in public policy exist in a pure form. It is a broader, but still personal, version of wellbeing that has been promoted over the past two decades.

At UK level, the Office for National Statistics has developed four standard questions to measure personal wellbeing (life satisfaction , worthwhileness, happiness and the absence of anxiety). The life satisfaction question is usually reported as the ‘headline’ figure and when new figures are issued, a set of newspaper articles follow suit discussing the ‘best’ place to live in the UK. This is not a pure measure of hedonistic wellbeing—the four questions include an evaluative component (life satisfaction ) and a eudemonic component (worthwhileness).

A significant amount of academic and government attention in the UK has been paid to these measures of personal wellbeing as a means of understanding the contributory factors for individuals’ wellbeing, and as a tool for policy formulation and policy evaluation. For example, the Treasury Green Book cautiously promotes the use of personal wellbeing as a mechanism for social cost-effectiveness analysis (HM Treasury 2018).

And there are reasons for caution. For one, evidence shows that there is a genetic component to wellbeing, which means that the proportion of personal wellbeing that governments can positively affect is smaller than it might first appear. Related to this, there are well-known life cycle trends in personal wellbeing and distributive effects which require careful analysis and care (see for example Laaksonen 2018; Walker and John 2012). Environmentalists caution against the short-termism of an approach which does not factor in the potential medium to long-term environmental costs of policy decisions (Whitby et al. 2014). And finally, there are critiques that argue personal wellbeing is further individualisation of the role of governments, focusing on interventions on the person rather than structural changes (White 2017). As an example, the New Economics Foundation developed a popular message through its ‘Five ways to wellbeing’ work which aimed to provide people with a basic guide to personal wellbeing : connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give. While these activities are strongly correlated with personal wellbeing , they take no account of the structural factors at play that allow people to live a good life.

Societal Wellbeing—Living Well Together Now and in the Future

The Aristotelian-eudemonic tradition sees human flourishing as the goal for society. To flourish is understood as having a purpose in life, participating in society, having a community around oneself. There is increasing recognition within economics that people do not just seek to maximise their own wellbeing but also seek the wellbeing of others (McGregor and Pouw 2016). There are diverse literatures on human flourishing in health, economics and psychology.

To flourish, basic needs must first be met, housing, education, health and so on. Basic needs are universal to human beings, but their realisation is relative. For example, we may agree that housing is a basic human need, but the quality of that housing, how it is to be provided and what is tolerated as good enough housing, will differ across societies. Social norms in developed countries mean that overcrowding is an indicator of housing quality but in cultures where families live more closely together this would not necessarily be a detriment. The social indicators movement has succeeded in ensuring that we have reasonable measures of basic needs , comparative across developed nation-states.

Within the eudemonic tradition basic needs are necessary but not sufficient for a good life. While the absence of income, health or education may make flourishing difficult, their availability does not itself create flourishing . In a purely objective account of wellbeing, something of the meaning of a good life is lost. Understanding this gap, Amartya Sen developed the Capabilities Approach which seeks to supplement purely objective measures with an understanding of what people can do (functionings) and be (capabilities) (Sen 2009). While Sen always refused to provide a list of the central human capabilities (largely due to the relativism described above), his colleague Martha Nussbaum has done so (see Box 1.1).

Box 1.1: Martha Nussbaum’s Set of Central Human Capabilities

  1. 1.

    Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length.

  2. 2.

    Bodily health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health.

  3. 3.

    Bodily integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place.

  4. 4.

    Senses, imagination and thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think and reason.

  5. 5.

    Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves.

  6. 6.

    Practical reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life.

  7. 7.

    Affiliation. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.

  8. 8.

    Other species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.

  9. 9.

    Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.

  10. 10.

    Control over one’s environment. Political and material (Nussbaum 2006).

Further, eudemonic philosophy includes the assessment of longer term harm caused by actions that create short-term happiness , it is therefore a philosophy that incorporates both the present and the foreseeable future, often described as the wellbeing of future generations.

Societal wellbeing is increasingly used to define this broader sense of living a good life. It is a multidimensional concept that describes progress in terms of improvements in quality of life, material conditions and sustainability (Coutts and Wallace 2017).

Balancing Personal and Societal Wellbeing

The balance between personal and societal wellbeing plays out in practice across the jurisdictions of the UK. While the UK Government has arguably focused attention on personal wellbeing measures in policy development (Austin 2016), Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have developed frameworks for measuring societal wellbeing.

In my experience, perception from outside Westminster is that personal wellbeing has ‘captured’ the wellbeing movement in the UK, with key proponents reinterpreting the word wellbeing as relating solely to personal wellbeing (Layard 2005). For example, in their analysis of government frameworks on wellbeing, the Global Happiness Council argues that ‘only very rarely do the national programs or case studies under review place subjective wellbeing at the centre of their data gathering and policy analysis. In that sense, even these leading adopters are not yet able to provide the data and analysis needed to support the selection of policies according to their likely ability to improve human happiness ’ (2018, p. 14). As this quote illustrates, proponents of personal wellbeing (and in this case happiness ) identify it as the most important tool for understanding of wellbeing, ignoring other mechanisms of building evidence on policy impact on wellbeing such as public consultation and qualitative evidence. This is despite concerns that personal wellbeing scores can be influenced by low expectations, cultural norms, or ‘internalised oppression’ (White 2017). Northern Ireland for example, has the paradoxical situation of having simultaneously the highest regional wellbeing in the UK and the highest levels of suicide (Doran et al. 2015). Personal wellbeing therefore seems necessary but not sufficient to understand social progress .

On the other hand, as stated earlier, in a purely objective account of wellbeing something is lost: ‘it is not credible in either scientific or political terms to achieve a comprehensive and realistic assessment of a person’s well-being without taking account of the view from the person whose well-being is being assessed’ (McGregor and Pouw 2016, p. 13).

In his philosophical argument on the limits of both personal and objective wellbeing Griffin concludes ‘there is merit in a notion somewhere between … or in an eclectic concept that borrows from each’ (1986, p. 41). Each of the three governments—in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, took this approach, incorporating personal wellbeing but focusing clearly on societal wellbeing as it is understood in the Aristotelian-eudemonic tradition.

While none of the interviewees for this book discussed the philosophical origins of wellbeing, it is possible that they were aware of the deep roots of the debate. Knowingly or unknowingly, the policy-makers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implemented the same compromise, borrowing eclectically from each tradition. As we will see, the balance in the devolved administrations is firmly on the side of societal wellbeing.

Wellbeing as a Concept for Understanding Social Progress

The concept of wellbeing as social progress has been developed by governments across the world. To understand this, we must first understand the nature of the problem that they are trying to solve—how do we adequately measure the progress of our societies?

The Failure of GDP

For much of the twentieth century, the dominant measure of social progress used has been Gross Domestic Product (GDP) . GDP has become accepted shorthand for the performance and health of our economy, as well as a proxy for benchmarking wellbeing and prosperity in society:

GDP is undoubtedly the most influential decision-making tool in the world. It has dictated the economic, social and environmental policies of most countries for most of the time since the 1950s… yet hardly anyone even knows what GDP stands for, let alone what its value was last year or by how much it is predicted to grow this year. How is it that what is held to be the most important indicator in the world remains a mystery to most people? (MacGillivray 1998, p. 65)

Let’s unpack that mystery a little. GDP is not one objective number but an index, what we hear in the press is the result of a complex set of calculations. At its base, it is the value of all marketised goods and services produced within a country in a defined time period. It is influential because it is used as a proxy measure for social progress , if the economy is improving overall it is assumed that life must be getting better. This is the classical economists’ view of social progress , with roots in utilitarianism : each individual is the best person to decide what gives them happiness , so increasing wealth increases their potential to achieve their desires via increased consumption.

The difficulties with this approach are immediately obvious. Indeed the creator of GDP , Simon Kuznets, counselled against it being used as a measure of social progress noting: ‘the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income’ (Kuznets 1934, p. 7). This is not a book on economics so I will deal only briefly with the key arguments of the failure of GDP as a measure of social progress . For a fuller discussion see, for example, Lorenzo Fioramonti (2017) or Dirk Philipsen (2017).

As I have said, the core argument for using GDP as a measure of social progress is that rising GDP is linked to improvements in wellbeing more generally. This was called into question as early as the 1970s with the ‘Easterlin paradox ’ whereby, after a certain point, increases in GDP did not result in increases in measures of life satisfaction for the country as a whole. What is true at a societal level is also true at an individual level—at a certain point in income levels, more money does not make people more satisfied with their lives. As Karen Scott notes: ‘it is clear that a more complex relationship between income and happiness exists than the one that informs utilitarian economics’ (2012, p. 28).

But we must be careful here in equating personal wellbeing with a broader concept of social progress (societal wellbeing). To argue that there has been no increase in societal wellbeing since the 1970s would seem unlikely. While we cannot go through all objective measures of societal wellbeing, a few that are common to societal wellbeing frameworks are instructive. I have used Scottish data to explore these:

  • Life expectancy at birth for Scottish men rose by eight years between 1980 and 2013 and for women by six years.

  • But while healthy life expectancy at birth for Scottish men in 1980 was 62.6 years and for women 65.9 years, by 2013 it had fallen to 60.8 years for men and 61.9 years for women—meaning the proportion of life spent in health fell by 12% for both groups (from 91 to 79% for men and 88 to 76% for women) (Scottish Public Health Observatory 2017).

  • And there is no clear long-term trend on mental health in Scotland, with a slight decline between 1995 and 2003, then an increase between 2003 and 2013 (Scottish Public Health Observatory 2017).

Therefore, when we look at generally accepted objective indicators of health, rising GDP fails to show a clear, linear relationship.

Similarly, GDP tells us nothing about distribution within a country. Recent discussion of this within the UK has focussed on geographical and income distributions, particularly following the Brexit vote. Commenting on GDP figures, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England highlighted:

A present there are only two regions across the UK – London and the South-East – where GDP per head currently exceeds its pre-crisis peak. In other words, in all bar two UK regions, there has been no real recovery even in GDP terms. The distribution of this income across rich and poor is no less striking… While the lowest 20% of earners have seen their wealth fall by around 20% since 2008, the highest-earning 20% have seen wealth rise by over 15%. (Haldane 2017)

The rate of income inequality in a society does have an impact on other tangible measures of social progress . According to the OECD, the Gini coefficient (measure of income inequality ) for developed countries rose 10% between the mid-1980s and the late 2000s (OECD 2011a). Wilkinson and Picketts’ 2009 report The Spirit Level charted the impact of inequality on key aspects of social progress , showing that for each of eleven different domains of wellbeing, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal countries (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).

The second set of arguments calls into question its suitability as an economic indicator of progress. GDP fails to account for changes in the asset base (depreciation of capital stocks and level of indebtedness). It also fails to correct for ‘regrettables’ and so includes as a positive the direct costs of crime, divorce, car accidents and industrial accidents, despite the impact that these may have elsewhere in the economy or on wider wellbeing. Including expenditures that stem from activities or events that can seriously undermine economic (let alone overall) wellbeing seems perverse (The Round Table on Measuring Economic Performance and Social Progress in Scotland 2011).

A final set of arguments relates to the gender assumptions behind GDP . Adam Smith wrote: ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’ (1776, p. 456). This may well be the case in goods, but many services are provided by women in caring roles which are excluded from the calculation of GDP . The basic services of caring, cleaning and washing remain primarily the responsibility of women in most countries. Adam Smith reportedly wrote the Wealth of Nations while living with his mother who we can presume did much of the housekeeping without regard to her own economic interest. In the UK, women report spending an average of 13 hours on housework and 23 hours on caring for family members each week; the equivalent figures for men are eight hours and 10 hours (Park et al. 2013). Valuing GDP as the principle measure of social progress , automatically excludes unpaid work carried out predominantly by women.

McGregor and Pouw identify the three allocative mechanisms for moving resources around society:

  1. i.

    Individuals, households and communities. Based on reciprocity and mutual support.

  2. ii.

    Private sector. Based on market exchange.

  3. iii.

    Public sector. Based on redistribution and regulation (2016).

As they note, it is not helpful to consider these in complete isolation from one another. The case of early years childcare is illustrative. While a mother is on maternity leave there is a negative effect on GDP (her lost productivity) but when she returns, her wages, and the fees paid to childcare services, will be positively affecting GDP . Early return to work from maternity leave is associated with depressive symptoms, parenting stress and poorer overall health (Chatterji et al. 2013). The economic valuing of paid over unpaid caring is therefore perverse from a wellbeing perspective. There is a further anomaly as the state takes over provision of education first at three years old and then more comprehensively at five years old. The care provided by a private nursery or childminder contributes to GDP , the public provision of education does not. Decisions on allocation of regulation and public provision of early years education and care therefore affect all three areas of resources in society, and the paid and unpaid contributions of members of society do not occur in isolation of each other.

This is not an exhaustive list of the issues with GDP but it shows the importance of caution over using GDP as a measure of social progress . As an economic measure it may be sufficient, but a measure of social progress clearly it is not. That it remains such a critical indicator for politicians and the media is an issue I will return to in the concluding chapter.

The Development of Alternative Measures of Social Progress

The roots of the current interest in measuring societal wellbeing as a mechanism to improve public policy can be found in the social indicators movement (White 2017) and the sustainable development movement (Drudy 2009).

There are a number of phrases used to describe initiatives to improve measurement of social progress : Beyond GDP , sustainable development , human development, happiness , wellbeing (or hyphenated as well-being).

Box 1.2: Internationally-Significant Wellbeing Initiatives

  • 1968 Robert Kennedy speaks of the failures of GDP as a measure of social progress

  • 1987 United Nations Brundtland Commission reports

  • 1992 UN publishes first Human Development Index

  • 2000 Millennium Development Goals agreed by UN

  • 2004 1st OECD World Forum on ‘Statistics, Knowledge and Policy’ held in Palermo, Italy

  • 2007 Istanbul Declaration on Measuring Social Progress

  • 2009 Publication of Stiglitz-Sen -Fitoussi report on Measuring Economic Performance and Social Progress

  • 2011 OECD launches Better Life initiative

  • 2012 UN publishes: Well-being and Happiness : Defining a New Economic Paradigm

  • 2012 UN resolution on International Day of Happiness

  • 2014 Social Progress Index launched

  • 2014 How’s Life in Your Region? Launches

  • 2018 Group of Wellbeing Economy Governments launched

  • 2018 Global Dialogue for Happiness held at the World Government Summit

In 1987, the UN World Commission on the Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) recommended the use of sustainable development as an organising principle for human systems. Sustainable development is defined as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Brundtland Commission 1987, p. 41). The three pillars of sustainable development are economic growth, environmental protection and social equality.

A few years later, the social indicators movement received a boost when the Human Development Index (HDI) was launched by the UN in 1992, providing internationally comparative information on social progress . It is a composite index of life expectancy, education and per capita income indicators , which are used to rank countries into four tiers of human development. A country scores higher HDI when the lifespan is higher, the education level is higher and the GDP per capita is higher. A relatively straightforward index, it was successful in gaining prominence as an alternative way of thinking about social progress and competition between nations. It did not, however, include an environmental component.

In 2007, the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development , the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank signed the Istanbul Declaration on measuring social progress (European Commission 2007). The Declaration recognised that many countries had developed measurement programmes for social progress , taking into account their own cultural backgrounds, but that ‘they reveal an emerging consensus on the need to undertake the measurement of societal progress in every country, going beyond conventional economic measures such as GDP per capita’ (European Commission 2007, p. 1). They called for the following actions:

  • encourage communities to consider for themselves what ‘progress’ means in the 21st century

  • share best practices on the measurement of societal progress and increase the awareness of the need to do so using sound and reliable methodologies

  • stimulate international debate, based on solid statistical data and indicators , on both global issues of societal progress and comparisons of such progress

  • produce a broader, shared, public understanding of changing conditions, while highlighting areas of significant change or inadequate knowledge and

  • advocate appropriate investment in building statistical capacity, especially in developing countries, to improve the availability of data and indicators needed to guide development programs and report on progress toward international goals, such as the Millennium Development Goals.

Spurred on by the Declaration there was an explosion of ‘Beyond GDP ’ initiatives. In February 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France asked Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean Paul Fitoussi to form the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress to review how statistics are used to measure progress in the economy and society. It had the following objectives: to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress , including the problems with its measurement; to consider what additional information might be required for the production of more relevant indicators of social progress ; to assess the feasibility of alternative measurement tools and; to discuss how to present the statistical information in an appropriate way (Stiglitz et al. 2009, p. 16).

The Commission’s 2009 report has been hugely influential. It builds on an increasing volume of academic and professional literature looking at how to improve measurement of economic performance and wider social progress . The ‘unifying theme’ of the Stiglitz-Sen -Fitoussi report is that the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s wellbeing.

The recommendations were made in three ‘clusters’. Firstly they argued for the reform of economic indicators themselves, for example to take into account income, wealth and consumption rather than production and to make space for the distribution of these assets as well as the base numbers.

Secondly, they recommended the inclusion of a dashboard of quality of life indicators with improvements to the standard measures of people’s health, education, personal activities and environmental conditions. In particular, they argued that substantial effort should be devoted to developing and implementing robust, reliable measures of social connections, political voice and insecurity that can be shown to predict life satisfaction . Again, they argued that the total number should be augmented with information on the distribution of quality of life dimensions and include measures of both objective and subjective wellbeing .

Finally they recommended improvements to sustainability indicators with environmental aspects measured through a carefully selected set of physical indicators . In particular, they argued for a need for a clear indicator of our proximity to dangerous levels of environmental damage (such as that associated with climate change).

The Stiglitz–Sen –Fitoussi recommendations take forward the capabilities approach but add to it the importance of measuring personal wellbeing . The report specifically recommends that ‘statistical offices should incorporate questions to capture people’s life evaluations, hedonic experiences and priorities in their own surveys’ (Stiglitz et al. 2009). This was seen as an essential corrective to the over-emphasis on objective indicators . The language is deliberate, life evaluations, hedonic experiences and personal preferences are separate measures. They did not prioritise one measurement over the other.

In 2011, UN member states unanimously adopted a resolution noting that GDP ‘was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and wellbeing of people in a country’. They instead invited countries ‘to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and wellbeing in development with a view to guiding their public policies’ (United Nations 2011). Since then, the OECD has led international efforts to improve measures of progress through its Better Life initiative. The programme includes online interactive tools to compare wellbeing across member states and guidance on measuring wellbeing. They have developed a dynamic framework for measuring wellbeing which includes quality of life indicators , material conditions and sustainability (Fig. 1.1).

Fig. 1.1
figure 1

(Source OECD 2011b)

OECD framework for measuring wellbeing and progress

The OECD work identified 11 characteristics of individual wellbeing (Fig. 1.1): income and wealth, jobs and earnings, housing, education and skills, environmental quality, personal security, health status, work–life balance, civic engagement and governance, social connections and subjective wellbeing . As with the other frameworks this book considers, subjective wellbeing is only one characteristic of wellbeing and is not elevated above the others. They add to this sustainability of wellbeing over time (natural capital, economic capital, human capital and social capital) and specifically identify regrettables as items that contribute to GDP but not to wellbeing.

We can trace here the relativism of the indicators chosen to represent social progress . The OECD is a membership organisation for developed countries. In contrast, the Legatum Global Prosperity Index, is a global index and there safety and security is measured by the following indicators : battlefield death rate, civil and ethnic war casualty rate, political terror scale (state violence and repression), refugees by country of origin and terrorist death rate (The Legatum Institute 2017). Such indicators do not figure in the OECD Better Life Index or any of the wellbeing frameworks analysed in this book. While the outcomes are universal, our concept of what a good life is, and a good society, can only be understood by measurements that are specific to its own place and time.

Until this point, much of the ‘action’ around wellbeing was at a nation-state level. As the movement matured, more interest was generated at regional level. In October 2014, the OECD released How’s Life in Your Region? the first analytical report on which their regional wellbeing tool is based (2014). It provides a common framework for measuring wellbeing in regions, and guidance to policy-makers at all levels on how to use wellbeing metrics for improving policy results, based on lessons from regions that have been using wellbeing metrics to improve the impact of policy (Coutts and Wallace 2017). A further regional tool was issued by the EU in 2016, the EU Regional Social Progress Index (European Union 2016). The EU tool follows the regional definition of the sub-national, NUTS2 so while information on the regions within Wales and Scotland are included, there is no specific output that aligns to the jurisdictions.

In August 2015, the United Nations’ General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), replacing the previous Millennium Development Goals. The aim was to create a comprehensive package of goals and targets that can drive global efforts towards a sustainable and poverty-free world by 2030. The process of development was open and consultative with a total of five million people from across 88 countries taking part and sharing their vision for the world in 2030. In response to the accusation that the previous six Millennium Development Goals were too narrow in focus, the SDGs tackle a broader range of issues, including gender inequality and climate change. The unifying thread throughout the 17 goals and their 169 targets is the commitment to ending poverty (see Box 1.3). There are around 245 indicators that measure global progress against the Goals. In total, 193 countries agreed to the SDGs , including the UK.

Box 1.3: UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere.

  • Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.

  • Goal 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

  • Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

  • Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

  • Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

  • Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

  • Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.

  • Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries.

  • Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

  • Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

  • Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

  • Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development .

  • Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

  • Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development , provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

  • Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development (United Nations 2015).

Towards a New Approach to Governance

As the Beyond GDP movement was beginning to change its language towards wellbeing, a parallel development in social policy has also been nudging governments in the same direction. By the mid-2000s, the literature was shifting away from support for new public management towards whole of government approaches to public policy, here termed a wellbeing approach.

The key argument in this book is that the wellbeing framework is both a contributory factor and the result of a broader paradigm shift taking place in each devolved administration, developments which can be summarised as a wellbeing approach to government.

Table 1.1 shows outlines the development of public administration thinking in the UK. Initially the focus was on equality and ‘one-size-fits-all’, the model which characterised the early years of the welfare state. Here broad improvements in wellbeing were achieved but increasing concerns were raised about the distributive effects and the diminishing returns from the model.

Table 1.1 Public administration, new public management and wellbeing approaches

New Public Management began during the early 1990s but rose to dominance in the UK during New Labour years of 1997–2010. Itself a reaction to traditional public administration, a key aspect of new public management was its focus on measurement (the other elements included management and markets). Other countries such as New Zealand, Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands also used this approach extensively (Colgan et al. 2016).

During this time, the approach of the UK Government was to set targets to be reached, for example, improving waiting-list times or increasing the proportion of young people going into higher education. There are well-known problems with this approach:

  • The ratchet effect: when targets are set based on the incremental improvement to the previous year managers can deliberately underperform to avoid increasingly demanding targets.

  • The threshold effect: when a target is applied to everyone there is no incentive to ‘go the extra mile’ and it may encourage otherwise excellent services to reduce the quality or quantity of their performance to just what the target requires.

  • ‘Hitting the target and missing the point’: where there is output distortion or the manipulation of reported results, sometimes called ‘gaming’ (Hood 2006).

The issue of gaming is particularly vexing for public services. A recent analysis by the Royal Statistical Society found that the target of 95% of people to be seen within four hours of attending Accident and Emergency led to a spike in those seen in the last ten minutes of the target window (i.e. 230–240 minutes) (Bird et al. 2017). There is evidence that outcomes are poorer after a four-hour wait (Burns 2017) but in the absence of information about the quality of care, this target tells us nothing about whether an individual’s wellbeing was improved or harmed by the length of their particular wait. And it removes staff autonomy to respond to relative patient needs at any given time. The issue here is not that the indicator is wrong (4 hours is evidentially sound as a link to outcomes ) but that turning it into a performance target affects staff behaviour in unpredictable ways. And yet it is the focus of significant political and media interest.

A further set of problems with New Public Management was its tendency towards fragmentation. The examples given above of waiting times for healthcare related only to the health services, young people in higher education only to the education services. Departmental silos and silo mentality are endemic across public services, with many policy initiatives focusing solely on getting civil servants to plan together more effectively. By the early 2000s and the establishment of the devolved administrations, New Public Management was seen to have reached the limits of its effectiveness and public services were beginning to display behaviours which were creating mistrust within the population (OECD 2017).

A new approach was required and governments began to experiment with new ways of working. The literature has not quite settled on a language to describe the new approach, referred to variously as an enabling state, a relational state, strategic agility, whole-of-government approach and systems thinking. I have referred here to an emerging wellbeing approach, not to attempt to create a new category, but rather to indicate that there is no agreed terminology to describe the paradigm shift underway (as summarised in Table 1.1).

Research by Coutts and Wallace (2017), the Global Happiness Council (2018), Wallace and Schmueker (2012) and Whitby et al. (2014) have all identified a number of policy developments that sit alongside wellbeing frameworks (which identify outcome and indicators of social progress ). These are summarised briefly below.

New political narratives on social progress as wellbeing

New narratives are being established to rebalance economic dominance of decision-making with environmental and social domains of wellbeing. This has been partly in response to the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Prolonged austerity and low growth has convinced some of the need for a new conversation. At the same time, the direct impacts of climate change are beginning to be seen within the UK and across Europe as a whole.

A wellbeing framework for measuring progress towards outcomes

A focus on outcomes , rather than inputs , processes or targets, is an essential component of the move to a wellbeing approach. Outcomes are selected that reflect citizens views of what constitutes wellbeing and are pursued over a number of years (decoupling outcomes from election timetables). Indicators track progress towards these outcomes , but these are communicated as proxies that indicate progress, not targets to be achieved. Some also attempt to quantify the impact of current behaviours on the wellbeing of future generations.

Horizontal integration (whole of government)

With governments increasingly realising that the solutions to wicked policy problems can only be found in working together, as each part of the system (education, health, policing and so on) is dependent on the other to achieve its objectives. Whole-of-government approaches go further than joined-up or interagency working by ensuring that all stakeholder have the same vision and strategic priorities. (Colgan et al. 2014)

Vertical integration (localism)

There has been a corresponding drive to a new relationship between central and local government based on a shared understanding of the objectives but allowing for local tailoring to suit the needs and priorities of those communities. In some interpretations, this is included within the whole of government or systems thinking approach but for clarity I have separated it out.


A wellbeing approach requires problems to be identified and responded to before they become too entrenched and difficult to resolve or mitigate. The lost opportunities of intervening too late are recognised as costly not just for the public purse but also for overall wellbeing.


That social progress cannot be understood without engaging people about what matters to them and that wellbeing cannot be ‘done to’ people but rather that is it a relational process where public servants enable people to realise their own wellbeing. There are a number of ways in which participation is discussed within public service reform. It can refer to the co-design of policies and services or the co-production of outcomes , where people have equal power and control to the professionals and providers in the process of service delivery. (Wallace 2013)

These elements are emerging in a number of jurisdictions, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but there is not yet strong enough evidence or analysis on their implementation and the difference that they make to policy-making or social change .

Bringing It Together: The Role of the Wellbeing Framework

These independent developments on Beyond GDP , the social indicators movement and systems thinking in governance, come together in the same policy instrument—the wellbeing framework . If the overall change sought is a paradigm shift away from economic dominance, New Public Management and towards whole of government thinking, the wellbeing framework is how that change is implemented and communicated to policy-makers, professionals and the public. Wellbeing frameworks have a number of features (see Fig. 1.2). The OECD promotes the use of wellbeing frameworks and has produced guidance as a starting point to develop governments own framework and measures, taking into account local characteristics.

Fig. 1.2
figure 2

(Source Original)

Components of a wellbeing framework

At a nation-state level there are a number of well-known examples of wellbeing frameworks. The Global Happiness Council has recently reported on the growth of these initiatives within governments, summarising them in the 2018 Global Happiness Policy Report these include:

  • Australia: Mapping Australia’s Progress (last published in 2013)

  • Austria: How’s Austria

  • Belgium: Complementary indicators to GDP

  • Ecuador: Buen Vivir

  • Finland: Findicator

  • Germany: Wellbeing in Germanywhat matters to us

  • Japan: Commission on Measuring Well-being

  • Slovenia: Indicators of Well-Being in Slovenia

The UK also features in this list with the Measuring National Wellbeing programme run by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which started in 2010. Its aim is to monitor and report on ‘how the UK as a whole is doing’ through measures of wellbeing. A progress report is published biannually covering areas including health, natural environment, personal finances and crime. The measures include objective and subjective data.

The data within the ONS framework covers the devolved jurisdictions and can be disaggregated to provide data specifically for the devolved jurisdictions. None of the jurisdictions under study saw this as instrumental in the development of their own frameworks, though there has been more discussion in Northern Ireland of the crossover between the UK and devolved initiatives. The UK ONS wellbeing framework and the devolved wellbeing frameworks in the UK operate largely independently.

The existing frameworks vary in the extent to which they are stand-alone dashboards of indicators or than embedded directly in government decision-making structures. As we will see, the frameworks developed by the three devolved legislatures of the UK go further than most in embedding the framework in legislation and policy planning processes.

The Rest of the Book

The development of three wellbeing frameworks so close in terms of geography, culture, maturity of democracy and social issues, provides an opportunity to compare and contrast to better understand why they have established a wellbeing approach to government and what it may have achieved. We see in these three approaches the priority given to performance management (Scotland), sustainable development (Wales) and visioning (Northern Ireland). That three such different local catalysts have resulted in very similar wellbeing approaches can tell us much about its perceived value to politicians and the policy process. The question of whether any of these aspirations have been realised tells us much about the process of policy-making in small jurisdictions.

Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 introduce the devolved jurisdictions and outline the developments in each in further detail. While the frameworks developed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to understand societal wellbeing all differ, they share common characteristics including a plurality of measures and an emphasis on objective measurement of wellbeing. The jurisdictions are covered in order of when their governments set a whole of government approach to societal wellbeing (Scotland in 2007, Wales in 2009 and Northern Ireland in 2018).

Chapters 6 and 7 switch from a jurisdiction to a thematic analysis, making overall comparisons between the three jurisdictions and drawing on wider developments in the UK and internationally. It looks at the extent to which the reforms have had an impact on political narratives and policy-making. It goes on to explore some of the challenges in assessing the impact of narratives, measurement and frameworks on policy and social change . Looking forward, it assesses whether the reforms are likely to continue and what the potential next steps are for the development of wellbeing by devolved governments.

A note on language: Talking about the three devolved jurisdictions of the UK creates a linguistic challenge. While many commentators refer to the ‘nations’ of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), this is not strictly accurate in the case of Northern Ireland which is a geographic region. The extent to which the people of Northern Ireland associate as a distinct group (as opposed to British or Irish), and therefore constitute a country is a deeply divisive issue. Surveys of identity show that fewer than a third of those in Northern Ireland identify as Northern Irish, with more identifying as British (Garry and McNicholl 2015). I have therefore taken the approach of referring to the areas as jurisdictions, administrations or (when accurate) governments. This is less snappy, but hopefully more accurate.

A further small difference is also worth noting. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, wellbeing is not hyphenated while in Wales it is. It is not clear that there is any difference in meaning intended. For ease, I have used ‘wellbeing’ unless it is a direct quote from Wales or reference to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 .