Towards a politics of emergence: Can wellbeing shift the political conversation?

The Carnegie United Kingdom Trust (CUKT) convened a high-level Conference at the Girdwood Community Hub in Belfast Wednesday to take stock of the Trust’s joint work with QUB School of Law on advancing the case for a wellbeing outcomes framework in the Programme for Government. A feature of the conversation at the packed venue was the blend of local and global themes and speakers. We heard from Rolf Alter, Director for Public Governance and Territorial Development at the influential inter-governmental think-tank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the former Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, Sir John Elvidge, and the woman overseeing work on the redrafting of the PFG, Katrina Godfrey, from The Executive Office.

The CUKT were invited by Queens to support the formation of a Roundtable on Measuring Wellbeing in Northern Ireland. The recommendations were published in Towards a Wellbeing Framework in 2015. Together with the OECD’s Public Governance Review Northern Ireland (UK) Implementing Joined Up Governance for a Common Purpose (2016) and the work of the Clear Impact (US) partner National Children’s Bureau (NCB NI), the Roundtable recommendations have helped shape the design of the draft Programme for Government.

Alter underlined one of the special features of the wellbeing policy conversation. Northern Ireland government and civil society have joined a “global” conversation, but one that must have a local inflection. For the OECD wellbeing is part of the new language of “inclusive growth”, a values-led response to long-standing debates about the inadequacies of GDP as a proxy measure of societal progress in an age defined by ecological stress, inequality and deep concerns about adequate access to public services. Wellbeing also runs parallel and crosses over in some ways with the United Nations’ 17 recently adopted global Sustainable Development Goals. Inequality, of course, is the single most powerful inhibitor of wellbeing within and across countries.

This connection with a global policy conversation is significant in itself. It marks an important shift in the horizons available to reflect on strategic and delivery issues here, with pointed observations about the need for much better engagement with civil society. The OECD Public Governance Review was a peer-to-peer exercise that invited international governance experts and practitioners from around the world into intense and exhaustive discussion with their local counterparts about our state of regional governance.  The 512-page report sets out a series of far-reaching challenges for system change across our public sector, benchmarked against performance in a number of other modern democracies.The initiative owes much to Simon Hamilton MLA in his previous role as Finance Minister.

And it was his successor, Máirtín Ó’Muilleoir MLA, together with the Chair of the Assembly’s Finance Committee, Emma Little-Pengelly MLA, who on Wednesday underlined the second significant dimension of the wellbeing conversation. That local inflection. In his opening remarks to the Carnegie Conference he drew from the title of the OECD work, referring to the values that must underpin the PFG, summed up in the term “common purpose”. He made no bones about the challenge of meeting that ambition in an Executive that must also navigate deep constitutional “fault lines”, made all the more complex by the Brexit vote in England and Wales.

Nevertheless, it would seem that the societal wellbeing conversation offers a language, a platform, and an opening for a new shift in our politics: a democratic moment. The Strand One institutions and their political leaderships have always been destined to hold two worlds together in harness: the world of conflict transformation and the world of delivering what most governments must attend to, the wellbeing of their citizens. The former is a world of calculus, trade-offs, and scarce regard. The Fresh Start agreement might yet signal an opportunity for a new focus on the art of governing well in the present. It was the Corrymeela Community that brought these worlds together in the wonderful phrase ‘Living Well Together’.

Until recently our political institutions have been judged harshly and unrelentingly for their perceived failure to deliver on social, economic and environmental outcomes. The world of brinkmanship and crises overwhelmed the attention of our political class.  Ó’Muilleoir demonstrated his grasp of the real significance of the wellbeing conversation, one that includes but goes well beyond frameworks and outcomes. It is the realm of the “moral economy” and “compassion” articulated by such figures as Pope Francis and President Michael D Higgins. Living well together is conjured up in the ethos of the Irish proverb, “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” It is the realm where a different kind of power, the power of generosity and regard, unlocks possibility. And as one questioner put it to the Minister, it must be a world where economic strategies no longer mock the work of building reconciliation and peace by those who pay for the privilege with precarious lives of their own. Investment in wealth creation and peace building must come together with a new rigour.

There was something in the conversations about breaking down binaries. Breaking down our entrenched insistence that our political class must choose between the imperative of navigating those “fault lines” or the hackneyed “bread and butter” agenda.

Pengelly, one of the early architects of the wellbeing and outcomes approach during her stint as a SPAD at the former OFMDFM, also spoke forcefully about her “passion” for the new approach to be taken in the PFG….convinced of its merits having played a key role on Delivering Social Change. Her most powerful intervention came in response to a question about the authenticity of the new direction, of the declaration of intention to work collaboratively across the Executive. Pengelly dramatically underlined the dilemma facing members of a political class struggling to restore confidence in a project that seems broken: “Listen to what I am saying, not what you think I am saying.”

Professor Carol Tannahill, the Chief Social Policy Advisor to the Scottish Government, offered a refreshing and honest assessment of the Scottish Government’s journey and its experience since adopting an outcomes approach in the National Performance Framework. She cautioned against any tendencies to bestow a certain magical quality onto others’ experience and described the Scottish Government’s journey very much as a “work in progress” , nine years on. Much achieved, more to do…

She also explained the emergent quality of outcomes in complex settings. The Professor talked about honouring the precious textures of relationships, about embedding a deep learning ethos in our systems of governance and of the need for openness to co-producing outcomes alongside civil society actors.

My favourite phrase from the deliberations at the workshops was this: “Let’s wish the politicians well.” And in return, it was implied, we can look forward to a new mutual compact of respect for the work and the stories that have long-anticipated this new conversation about wellbeing. A conversation that is not merely a technocratic fad, and which is so much more than a framework. In the inspired words of Katrina Godfrey, the Programme for Government must become a “Living document” that eventually captures multiple voices and contributions….not only those of government.

There must be a shift in practices across the public sector and in its relation with the collective intelligence of our communities. But most significant for the moment, is the possibility that the language of pure calculation, transaction and a scarcity of regard will be joined – and perhaps one day transformed – by that other world of generosity, trust and even abundance. Wellbeing invites a politics of patience and emergence in our complex times – both locally and globally. The drive to over-determination can be the future’s greatest enemy.

(With thanks to my School of Law associate, John Woods)





I am a lecturer in sustainable development and governance at the School of Law, Queens University Belfast. I also conduct work at United Nations negotiations on the environment for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

My book on the attention economy and mindfulness as commons was published by Routlege in June 2017. See A Political Economy of Attention, Mindfulness and Consumerism: Reclaiming the Mindful Commons (Routledge Studies in Sustainability)

My research interests include consumerism, green politics and the economy. I locate myself firmly to the left of the political spectrum. I write in a personal capacity.

Born in Donegal, I was raised in Derry and now reside in Belfast with my family.