Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Future Directions for Well-Being Policy at the Scottish Parliament

Last Friday we held a workshop on the "Future Directions for Well-Being Policy" at the Scottish Parliament. The workshop was funded by the Scottish Institute for Research in Economics (SIRE) and organised by David Bell, Christopher Boyce, and Liam Delaney.

The purpose of the day was to bring prolific national and international speakers to the Scottish debate
Carnegie's influential report on
well-being in Scotland
on well-being based policy. As outlined at the start of the day, Scotland is uniquely positioned to develop a society that focuses on improving well-being. Not only has the Scottish Government developed and successfully embedded into the constitution a National Performance Framework but there is also a critical mass of researchers within academia and policy think tanks eager to take this debate forward. Yet the movement toward a well-being based society is not going to be an easy one and there are key challenges ahead. It was the intention of our workshop to highlight and discuss many of these challenges, as well as build and strengthen links around the well-being community in Scotland and beyond.

The workshop was organised around three key themes:

(1) Measurement: What should we measure? Can we measure it? How do we know we are measuring what we think we are?
(2) Implementation: If we are convinced we are measuring something meaningful, how do we go about implementing measurements and research findings into public policy?
(3) Engagement: Who is involved in the conversation about well-being policy? Who should be involved in the conversation? How can we establish legitimacy? How do we bring people into the conversation?

We invited key speakers who had expertise within each of these areas. We aimed for diversity that would provoke critical and reflective discussion. The introduction to the day, given by co-organiser of the event Christopher Boyce, highlighted the key problem we face: focusing only on economic factors, when we know that for the huge majority living in economically advanced countries, and who have their basic material needs met, higher incomes are not going to add much, if anything, to their well-being, Other factors, such as our social relationships, our health, our workplace environment, and our non-cognitive skills, contribute much more to how we feel about our lives. This talk highlighted that if economic policy were aimed at higher well-being, economic stability would be preferable to higher overall long-term income growth (particularly for those most vulnerable) and reductions in inequality would be a sensible way forward.


We then proceeded to our section on measurement. First, Conal Smith from the OECD spoke on "Measuring Well-Being: Progress to Date and Remaining Challenges". Conal's talk highlighted the ground-breaking work that the OECD has carried out over recent years (to push forward the international well-being agenda), for example though their Better Life Index. Conal, who has been working in this key policy area for a number of years, explained that many of the early concerns with well-being data with regard to reliability and validity have largely been resolved. However, there are clear measurement gaps: things we simply don't yet know and aspects that for the moment cause distrust with the measures. These included issues around (i) understanding cultural bias in answering questions; (ii) how to capture eudaimonic aspects of well-being (meaning and purpose in life: rather than purely hedonic well-being); (iii) how to understand social capital (trust); (iv) how to measure social contact; and (v) designing measures that capture volatility of income. Nevertheless, he presented evidence that cultural bias was not the problem we originally believed it to be - indeed cross-country comparisons may be more reliable than we first thought.

Our next speaker, Liam Delaney from the Behavioural Science Centre here at Stirling University, spoke on "Measurement Issues in Well-Being". As had been hoped, Liam's talk raised more issues than were solved. This is important for serious policy debate and Liam discussed issues with measuring different concepts of well-being (such as reliability, anchoring, interpretation, and reporting heterogeneity). Much complexity arises out of attempting to measure well-being but with new improved technologies (such as biomedical markers) many issues can be solved - however many new issues come to surface. Well-being needs to be assessed multi-dimensionally (a theme that recurred throughout the day - we need more than just one measure to capture well-being) but how do we balance each of these dimensions when it comes to policy?


Just before lunch we heard from our keynote speaker Bryan Smale, over from the University of Waterloo in Canada, to tell us about the Canadian Index of Well-Being (CIW). It is probably fair to say that the the CIW is at the forefront of national well-being policy initiatives, highlighting just the sort of level of measurement and engagement that is needed to have a serious public debate on well-being. We had hoped it would be informative and inspirational for the development of Scotland's own national indicators. The CIW took ten years to move from initial conception to the publication of its first report but this process involved intense public consultation to understand core Canadian values and ensure a sound conceptual and theoretical framework. This has led to 8 domains (not too dissimilar from many other multidimensional scales e.g. OCED Better Life Index) with 8 indicators for each and the CIW report on both an overall composite index, which at the outset, initiated many fruitful conversations about well-being (especially when we compare it with GDP) but ultimately the index is a useful dashboard of indicators which have clear links to policy levers.

The CIW has 8 domains and some have not risen in line with GDP.
GDP has risen much more quickly than the  overall composite index
Interestingly, as we learnt, the CIW is non-partisan, and is more interested in creating real differences on the ground rather than feeding into party political agendas. But it is clearly something that can be, and has been used to develop interventions at all levels of government. And more recently there have been moves to carry out the CIW at the divisional level. However, as with all well-being indices, key challenges exist and these include: data measuring criteria changes across time, geographical differences in measurement, political interference, and learning how to include new topics into the index. Ultimately, though, the CIW is grounded conceptually making many of these issues surmountable in some way. We also heard how various local authorities had used the CIW framework to improve, for example, access to arts and culture and levels of physical activity. Perhaps one of the most fascinating insights was that the CIW did not measure well-being per se but what is known to affect well-being. Of the 8 domains that contributed the most to subjective well-being, it was community vitality, time use, and leisure and culture, rather than health and living standards, that were more important.
CIW domains that contribute to subjective well-being
(size of arrows reflect overall contribution)
Since its launch, the CIW has sparked many conversations about the idea of national well-being in Canada and progress has been both top-down (initial development) and bottom-up (following the initial development it has inspired communities to put pressure on local government). It has helped policymakers think about problems and solutions in the context of the outcomes contained in the CIW. It is clear, as highlighted in our next session, that the well-being agenda needs a more cross-cutting approach that recognises that a policy implemented in education to improve skills and labour outcomes may also have, for example, additional benefits for health, leisure and democratic engagement. Thus, the aim to improve skills may be undervalued if only looked at from a labour market perspective.


In our next session, Wendy Loretto from the University of Edinburgh, and Saamah Abdallah from the New Economics Foundation (NEF), spoke on the theme of implementation. Both gave fascinating talks. Wendy highlighted that there was often a huge gap between practice and policy and yet again another gap between practice and implementation. A growing number of employing organisations introducing have introduced policies to improve and sustain the physical, mental and emotional well-being of their workforce. However, drawing on evidence from two Scottish studies, Wendy showed that there had been many pitfalls in implementing them in practice. These ranged from lack of joined up thinking, lack of follow up, poor design, delays, and non-existent measurement. It was concluded that  (i) poor implementation can reduce, rather than foster, well-being; (ii) context was important; (iii) the same people need to be involved in design, delivery, and implementation; (iv) there needs to be shared responsibility for well-being between employee and employer; and that (v) training and support are needed for managers.

Saamah Abdallah spoke about a range of frameworks and principles promoted by NEF and others. This included their influential "Five Ways to Well-Being" (Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning, and Give), which were designed to help individuals and havealso been used by organisations to develop their own approaches. The use of cost-benefit approaches to well-being, the use of "Well-Being Adjusted Life Years" (WELBY) rather than the better known "Quality of Life Adjusted Life Years" (QALY), and better allocation of resources across governmental departments due to the diverse effects of policies on well-being were all discussed. 

The talk and the questions that followed highlighted the importance of: procedural utility (how you do things matters more than what you do); the fact that we still don't know how to consider future well-being and the danger that sustainability may be crowded out by the well-being debate; and that equipping individuals with capabilities in the Amartya Sen will not guarantee people will thrive, especially if we do not also discuss values.


Our final session of the day was on the theme of engagement. An area that needs much focus - particularly here in Scotland where there is little public knowledge of, for example, Scotland Performs and the National Performance Framework. If we want the well-being debate to achieve legitimacy, then engagement is key. But perhaps more importantly empowering individuals through debate has the potential to have wide benefits to national well-being. Christina Victor from Brunel University leads 'culture and sport' strand of the What Works Centre for Wellbeing programme. They have already carried out key stakeholder engagement as part of their program and it was explained that this will shape conversations about the dimensions of wellbeing to be addressed in their evidence synthesis and the key aspects of social diversity and contextual factors that combine to determine what works, for whom, and in what circumstances.

Karen Scott of the University of Newcastle and author of the book "Measuring wellbeing: towards sustainability", who recently co-organised an ESRC seminar series on the politics of well-being, gave our final talk. Karen also has experience in working with local authorities to try and help them incorporate well-being based initiatives. In the talk it was suggested that well-being was not, in fact, a science but fundamentally a political process which science may help us understand. Her talk highlighted the dialogue around well-being as to who can speak about well-being and who is marginalised. There was a concern with why the debate was dominated by psychologists and economists and there were wider issues around which other disciplines, including politics, needed to have a voice. One overarching theme that came out in this talk was that serious well-being discussion brings up uncomfortable topics that many perhaps did not want to discuss. Many local communities are affected by economic systems they cannot control and have no voice or capability with which to tackle such issues. Also, it was suggested that some well-being measures were not entirely relevant - for example, why are we so concerned with how many people eat 5 or more fruits and vegetables rather than how much McDonalds spends on advertising? Karen highlighted that the well-being agenda has. in many respects, been co-opted by organisations to support certain agendas. For example, NEF's Five Ways to Well-Being approach can be contentious and whilst helpful for dealing with difficult situations, such as disability or loss of a loved one, can also be used negatively to create a dis-empowering blame culture, whereby individuals are ultimately to blame rather than the society which has shaped their goals and aspirations. For example, subjective well-being might be used to blame vulnerable individuals for their situations. Her concern was that those interested in the well-being agenda did not always want to talk about the problems with the well-being agenda. There are no ultimate truths in well-being research as someone is always likely to be marginalised and we need an ongoing critical debate, to which science must contribute.

The last talk was an excellent one to end on and summed up much of the day and the discussion we had following each of the talks. There are important issues ahead, and by shying away from confronting these, we will do the well-being policy agenda a huge disservice. The political dialogue around well-being is not going to disappear and perhaps one day, if we overcome many of the challenges, we might find ourselves living in a society where well-being takes centre stage. In the meantime, and it may be a long time, well-being research has a useful role in informing us all how we can thrive at least a little in our daily lives. 

1 comment:

Marilyn Cornelius said...

Thank you for this most informative summary. As a behavioral scientist who works at the intersection of climate change and wellness issues, I was most interested in the section on engagement. I think measuring well-being is a crucial yet difficult task because of the interconnections between wellness and a range of other issues, including diversity, racism, poverty, healthcare, pollution, climate change, food justice, political context, and so on. I wonder if those attending the workshop would be interested in exploring win-win scenarios and solutions that help foster true well-being in ways that everyone benefits - the government, individuals, families, communities and the environment? Such frameworks are possible using science-based tools that I apply through workshops and retreats. Perhaps these services might be of interest?