The good lifeCharity Insight Contributor
Will the government’s national measure of well-being provide charities with an opportunity to translate the results into positive changes for society? Laura Stoll explores its potential.
Towards the end of last year, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is to start measuring subjective well-being at the national level. He talked about a shift towards "measuring our progress as a country not just
by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving ... not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life".
The inclusion of questions on subjective well-being in national surveys is the first step in this process, but what will the introduction of what has been dubbed by some as the 'Happiness Index' mean, in practice, for the charity sector?
Improving well-being is surely the implicit aim of all charities, but debates over what this means have been around for millennia: from the Ancient Greeks to modern psychologists, people have had different ideas about what the 'good life' is and how we can achieve it. Researchers and the public alike usually talk about well-being in terms of flourishing (fulfilling your natural potential), pleasure and satisfaction; but for a long time the measurement of social progress was influenced by the idea that meeting a set of objective conditions were the most important factors for people's well-being.
This drove the focus of measurement on to economic indicators such as GDP. But recently there has been growing acknowledgement that this data cannot give us the whole picture and complementary measures of how our lives are going are also needed. Subjective well-being measures have emerged as one of the most likely alternatives.
Measuring subjective well-being means recording people's self-reported thoughts and feelings about how they experience various aspects of their life. For example, questions on people's life satisfaction - such as 'All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?' - have been included in surveys since the Sixties and have been used by researchers to look at
what leads people to evaluate their lives more positively.
Jil Matheson, the National Statistician, has been given the overall responsibility for deciding which questions will be used to measure national well-being. She has set up a national debate to allow the public, as well as experts, to help pick out the 'key areas which matter most' by asking questions about what they think is important for well-being and what should be covered by the questions.
In addition, questions from academic studies will be trialled by ONS and the final questions will be included in the Integrated Household Survey, which contains information from nearly 450,000 individual respondents.
How to measure happiness
Although this is the first time a UK government has measured subjective well-being in national surveys, it has already been carried out in other countries and by independent research organisations. For example, the National Accounts of Well-being, created by the
New Economics Foundation (NEF), used subjective well-being questions from the European Social Survey to develop an indicator set around the two important aspects of well-being: personal and social.
The results revealed differences between countries and between different groups within countries. For example, 'trust and belonging' in the UK among the under 25s was the lowest of any group in the 22 European countries included in the analysis. Knowing
where there is low well-being then provokes questions as to why this is and what can be done to improve it.
At present, we don't know exactly how the new well-being measure will be constructed, but the indicators chosen must be sufficiently wide-ranging - covering aspects of personal and social well-being such as self-esteem and supportive relationships (see diagram) - if they are to provide detailed, nuanced information that is of any use to either government or charities. The data must be collected often and from a large population sample if we are to analyse the impact of decisions over time and across different regions. If this happens, then it will provide a wealth of information about where the different components of well-being are high and low across the UK.
The measure will demonstrate how well-being is distributed across the country and can be used to identify areas of unmet need in different areas and in different groups such as the older population or people from ethnic minorities. This will not only highlight areas
where charities have an opportunity to make (and demonstrate) a real impact, but also provides evidence to back funding bids for region-specific programmes.
Knowledge about the factors associated with low general well-being can also be used by charities to feed into design of specific
types of targeted services.
The Integrated Household Survey already provides a large amount of data on socio-economic variables such as economic activity, education, health and disability, place of residence and income. With the inclusion of subjective well-being, analysts will be able to identify associations between people's subjective well-being or experiences and these socio-economic variables.
For example, research has already shown that people's well-being is affected by both material conditions such as income, employment, housing and physical environment of their local area, and psychosocial conditions such as connections with friends and relatives and community life.
Well-being and the Big Society?
In November Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, talked about how, when measuring the effects of the Big Society, 'impact' means much more than simply counting the numbers of people getting involved. Although there has been no official announcement, people have already started speculating that this may mean the use of subjective wellbeing measures to find out if the Big Society agenda really will improve people's lives.
October's issue of Charity Insight looked at the extent of cuts to voluntary sector budgets and presented a bleak picture of the future of charity funding. There is growing pressure to ensure that the funds that remain are being well spent - in other words that the maximum well-being is produced for every pound spent. Charities will need to present transparent and convincing evidence of their
impact and effectiveness, and well-being indicators present a strategic opportunity to do this.
The idea of evaluating charities using well-being measures is not a new one. Most notably it has been carried out by the Big Lottery Fund, which in 2008 commissioned Centre for Local Economic Strategies and New Economics Foundation to evaluate 19 charities in its Well-being Programme portfolio, including MIND, Age UK and the Soil Association. The overall impact of projects on mental health, physical activity, healthy eating and the overall well-being of beneficiaries, and how this relates to the specific context of projects, are all covered in this ongoing evaluation. Analysis of questionnaires after the first year showed that people started the projects with belowaverage levels of well-being: evidence that these charities are successfully targeting the right beneficiary groups. As information from further questionnaires comes in, the impact which the projects are having will become evident.
The announcement of the 'Well-being Index' represents an important step towards the way that different outcomes are valued. How useful this information is for charities and for improving the well-being of our population depends on whether the questions chosen are meaningful for those designing and delivering public and voluntary services. If done well, it presents charities with a golden opportunity to translate this information into positive changes in the way they operate and run their organisations.
Have your say on what should be measured by responding to the ONS consultation at http://www.ons.gov.uk/well-being
Laura Stoll, Assistant researcher, The Wellbeing Centre
New Economics Foundation