What can government engagement with ‘well-being’ bring to community confidence?

‘Well-Being’ is an odd term. It offends my grasp of the English language, in that I was never taught a verb: ‘to wellbe – I wellbe, you wellbe, he, she, it wellbes…’, nor even the slightly less gauche hyphenated ‘well-be’.

Nevertheless, it has entered the policy lexicon, and is surely preferable to the simplistic concept of ‘happiness’, much beloved of tabloid editors, as they print interminable lists of towns, cities and regions making their citizens more or less happy / unhappy; happiness-porn and misery-porn indeed. Even the august Office of National Statistics has seemingly succumbed.

In the context of Northern Ireland however, ‘well-being’ has acquired a new and sudden salience due in no small part to the imaginative and creative Carnegie UK Trust, scions of that amazing Scots-American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, of the well-worn phrase: ‘he who dies rich, dies thus disgraced’.

A year ago they set up a Roundtable in N. Ireland to explore how to shift the economic and social debate away from its narrow obsession with growth and GDP alone – how could society encompass concepts of sustainability, the triple bottom line, social purpose and well-being in a more meaningful and coherent fashion?

Their masterstroke was to bind in DUP Finance Minister @SimonHamilton, ably complemented and matched by Finance Committee Chair @DaithiMcKay as co-patrons of the process; in turn each nominated a representative @DavidRMcIlveen and @MFearonSF to attend and keep track of the discourse; it worked well, with the Hamilton-McKay double act for formal and presentational occasions, with McIlveen and Fearon paddling eagerly week-by-week below the surface, engaging, sharing, challenging and contributing to the developing story.

Well-being brings an international dimension with OECD favouring its theoretical depth and breadth as it examines NI governance and opportunity, at DFP’s behest. Likewise at Stormont, where it fits the drift of policy from both larger parties, moving to define progress and set targets beyond crude econometrics; third, at reformed local government level, it dovetails beautifully with the new 11 Councils’ power of Community Planning – how they engage, excite and inspire local communities through more than just the sterile chase for low-value high-cost jobs; what can well-being bring to community confidence, how will it drive impact statutory provision, cross-sectoral consensus and future reconfiguration of services in times of austerity?

The highlight of the year’s diligent analysis was undoubtedly the study trip to Scotland where we learned how the SNP Scottish Government had flipped Labour’s earlier 384 performance targets into seven fresh, simple, attractive ‘outcomes’, then loosening the strings of accountability for departments, NDPBs and local authorities to work towards the outcomes and win further concessions and incentives for so doing, but importantly, in their own way, thereby enhancing local ownership, control and accountability.

The impressive Finance Minister John Swinney MSP explained the errors and successes openly to us, and highlighted the cultural changes the new approach had unleashed. Carnegie adviser John Elvidge took us through his managerial challenges as Head of the Civil Service to win support, momentum and then real implementation for effectiveness.

The CUKT @NIWellbeing launch on Thursday 12th March promises another DUP-SF double act, with Hamilton and McKay embracing the Well-Being concept, explaining how it works for their parties’ ideologically (Big Society and Self-Help, empowerment or Community Development, municipal intervention and market change?).

@QuintinOliver represented @JRF_UK on the CUKT Roundtable