This guest blog from Joanne was prepared in February 2020 before the COVID-19 crisis dramatically changed the way that we live and work. The wellbeing of the country has arguably become more of a priority for policy makers once this crisis is over in order to learn lessons and ‘build back better’.
There are some great end lines in literature. A ‘literary payoff’ I think is the technical term. It’s a parting comment. A ta-da moment. The words an author wants you to linger over, to re-read and then digest. There are very few literary payoffs that have caused me to fist pump. But last week one did. And I mean really, like Andy Murray winning Wimbledon! And it came from an unexpected source. Tucked away on page 150, the final phrase of the latest Marmot report on health equity in England evoked that visceral reaction:
“This report is calling for a reordering of national priorities. Making wellbeing rather than straightforward economic performance the central goal of policy will create a better society with better health and greater health equity.”
At the What Works Centre for Wellbeing we believe that improving people’s wellbeing is the ultimate goal of effective policy and community action. Anything that helps us achieve this goal deserves a fist pump as far as I’m concerned. Importantly, we’re not alone in this view. In 2018 Treasury updated its Green Book to explicitly root policy appraisal in the principal of welfare economics. Appraisals should examine how policies can improve social welfare, sometimes described as social value, or wellbeing.
For us, wellbeing is how we are doing as individuals, communities and as a nation, and how sustainable this is for the future. For individuals it’s about feeling good and functioning well; feeling confident, satisfied, safe and supported. It’s about whether our lives have meaning and purpose; and its different for different people. Importantly, it’s both personal and subjective.
Our wellbeing lens looks broader than the individual, it focuses on society too. As Lord Gus O’Donnell, economist and former Cabinet writes in the foreword to the Centre’s latest publication Wellbeing evidence at the heart of policy “Wellbeing is the idea we can judge a society by how much the people are thriving”.
Centre for Thriving Places is the creator of the Thriving Places Index, an evidence informed and accessible tool for policy makers and practitioners to explore the strengths and challenges of an area. It shows whether the conditions are in place for people to thrive in a fair and sustainable way.
I’m delighted the TPI continues to be developed. In the work I’ve done with Local Authorities, it’s a valued tool that’s used with residents and elected members, policy makers and partners to explore how well an area is doing. TheTPI can inform a ‘wellbeing in all policies’ approach by focusing on the assets and conditions that help people and places to do well.
There are over four million people in the UK experiencing low wellbeing. Tools like this have a key role in providing insight and a wellbeing lens to make sense of complex policy goals and impacts. This approach will be essential if we’re to reverse trends in healthy life expectancy and widening inequality that Marmot articulates in such detail.
There is no shortage of valid measures for key drivers of individual and community wellbeing. We know, for example, that the biggest impacts to wellbeing come from focusing on improving relationships, mental and physical health, and deprivation. Yet too often, still, after at least 50 years of evidence-informed practice, this insight is missing from baseline studies and evaluation of impact. People care about wellbeing, and it’s our role to champion evidence informed wellbeing policy and practice at every opportunity.
It’s a bit too late, but I’ve just realised the flaw in my opening paragraphs. You’re now waiting for my closing line. My last chance at a good first impression. I’m not quite sure the Thriving Places Index will tell you, but I did say wellbeing is personal and subjective, and for me Noel Coward captures wellbeing perfectly: “Wouldn’t it be dreadful to live in a country where they didn’t have tea?”
About the author: Joanne Smithson is the Local Government & Health Lead at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. Joanne is leading a programme of work, funded by the Health Foundation, exploring how local government and its partners can maximise the wellbeing benefits of policy and practice.