What’s in a word – why dropping ‘wellbeing’ matters

Jennifer Wallace, Carnegie UK Trust

It was with great interest (probably more interest than is normal, even for policy wonks), that we at Carnegie UK opened the most recent blog from the NI Assembly research team. The briefing by RAISE comes at a critical time as Northern Ireland’s second Programme for Government is about to be published, when everywhere from New Zealand to the northeast of England, the concept of wellbeing is being cited as central to economic recovery and public service delivery.

We had high hopes that the team at RAISE would provide some clarity for elected members and stakeholders, particularly on the difference between population and programme accountability, something that has become increasingly obscure since 2016.

What they did instead was erase the word wellbeing from the history of the Northern Ireland approach to outcomes. It’s worth reminding ourselves that neither Scotland nor Wales employ OBA as devised by Friedman. Instead, the story of the development of outcomes approaches in those two nations has its roots in the work of Professors Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and John-Paul Fitoussi.

In 2009, these three economists (two of them Nobel prize winners) called for a new approach to understanding social progress by using a basket of indicators that could better capture what it means to live in a society that is flourishing. And they had a word to describe this shift – they called it wellbeing.

In the decade since their work, these wellbeing frameworks have become ways that governments have sought to localise the Sustainable Development Goals. Small governments in particular have found support and solace in a community that seeks to transform not just how they do performance management, but what they do it for.

When we established the Carnegie Roundtable on Measuring Wellbeing in Northern Ireland in 2013, we did so following the advice of those economists, and locating their analysis in the specifics of the Northern Ireland governance arrangements. When the 2016 draft Programme for Government was published it credited both the Carnegie Roundtable and Friedman as having influenced their thinking. Perhaps at that time we should have been clearer.

Friedman has very little to say about population outcomes. His approach is to reduce complexity by being clear about who is being targeted, for what specific change. It is a deeply technocratic approach that seeks a linear relationship between government activity and social change – ignoring the inherent complexity (and downright messiness) of people’s lives. It is entirely possible to have a Programme for Government that conforms to Friedman’s approach and yet have no change at population level.

So, what does a wellbeing framework actually do? By design, wellbeing outcomes cross over traditional lines of accountability and are holistic in nature. Where traditional accountability approaches delineate responsibility – a wellbeing framework seeks to bring it back together to answer the question of whether, taken as a whole, things are getting better or worse.

So, it stands to reason that these wellbeing outcomes need to be seen and treated differently. In our view, they belong at a level above day-to-day politics – providing a vision of the society we want and motivating people into action around that vision.

The data provided in wellbeing framework also does a number of useful things: it shows areas of life where progress is stalling or falling backwards; it shows which groups in society as systematically left behind and need different solutions; and it shows the vital importance of moving upstream to avoid social harms – not just apply the policy equivalent of a sticking plaster to issues that require structural changes.

This is what New Zealand has done in its Wellbeing Budget – using the data from the Living Standards Framework to identify the most important things to act on now. And crucially, it is these 5 areas that they will be held accountable for delivering – not the 12 domains of their Living Standards Framework.

The shift Northern Ireland is taking towards an outcomes-based government is complex and multi-layered – just like wellbeing is. We should embrace the complexity and accept the long-term nature of the shift. It is possible to align OBA with the PFG outcomes for Northern Ireland: the wellbeing framework sets the overall vision and identifies the priorities – OBA ensures that investment in those priorities is well-made and justifiable.

But focusing on one aspect of the 2016 changes does a disservice to those who developed the wellbeing thinking in NI over the last decade. And dropping wellbeing thinking altogether would be a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland who deserve a positive, holistic vision to be at the heart of their government.

Supported by the following members of the Roundtable on Measuring Wellbeing in Northern Ireland: Theresa Donaldson, Peter Doran, David Gavanagh, Will Haire, Aideen McGinley, James Orr, Jane Wilde and John Woods.