Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Wellbeing of Nations: Meaning, Motive and Measurement

This blog by Paul Allin, Professor at Imperial College London, discusses a new book that explores the meaning of wellbeing and why it should be measured, the authors look at over 200 recent initiatives and summarise the different approaches taken in this area. 

The desire to explore and understand the territory ‘beyond GDP’ is gaining momentum all the time as we seek more relevant and meaningful measures of wellbeing and progress.  The topic features not only in ProgBlog and WikiProgress, but increasingly in social media channels and in many on-line forums.  A new book “The Wellbeing of Nations” reflects this interest and records many local, national and cross-national initiatives to build measures of wellbeing and progress that go beyond purely economic measures, and the headline measures of GDP and GNP in particular.

The authors, statisticians based at Imperial College London, take the view that national wellbeing – how a country is doing – embraces quality of life, the state of the environment, development and sustainability, as well as economic performance. All  these aspects are important to people, so measures of real progress need these dimensions. (The same applies if attention is focussed on a city or a neighbourhood, rather than on the nation overall).

The book opens by asking what is national wellbeing, and why measure it?  These are not new questions, as we can see from a “short” history of national wellbeing and its measurement, from Plato in Ancient Greece through to current developments to replace the Millennium Development Goals.
Looking across some 200 or more recent initiatives, several different broad approaches to measuring wellbeing and progress are summarised in the book.  These range from making greater use of the full national economic accounts, including with extensions beyond the core accounts, through various sets of social and environmental indicators.  Survey-based data on personal wellbeing are also now being collected by some national statistical offices and other organisations, either as a new overall measures of wellbeing, or to include with other measures.

However, the fundamental point for the authors is to ask what we mean by wellbeing and progress, and how we will use new measures.  A key message is that we are still learning how to use wider measures in public policy, business decision-making and in everyday life.  Until we establish the requirement for new measures, we are unlikely to be able to construct measures that will last in the way that GDP has done.

The UK Measuring National Well-being programme is featured as a case-study in the book. The authors are two of the technical advisors to the ONS work. In the photo above, author Paul Allin (on the left) is seen presenting a copy of the book to Glenn Everett, his successor as director of the programme, during a recent meeting in the UK Office for National Statistics. 

The authors conclude that there is much research and development around the world to help understand what people mean by wellbeing and by wider measures of progress.  There are a variety of motives for going ‘beyond GDP’, including concerns about sustainability as well as current quality of life.  Robust and valid measures are starting to appear.

However, the authors report that they “have not found full, clear or widely accepted” answers about the meaning of national wellbeing, the motive for measuring it, and how it should be measured.  There is more to be done and more that should be done including, they suggest, widening the system of national accounts (SNA) to become a system of national wellbeing accounts.  This should be taken forward by the international organisations involved in SNA working with the many other organisations and developers who already have a stake in all of this.

Allin P. and Hand D.J. (2014) "The Wellbeing of Nations: Meaning, Motive andMeasurement", John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. 

Paul Allin, CStat, FRSA
Visiting Professor, Department of Mathematics, Imperial College London

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