Statistics, wellbeing and policy

In the week that we celebrated World Statistics Day it seems fitting to reflect back on what I learned recently at the OECD World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy in Mexico. The forum was the fifth of its kind over the last decade that have focussed on the need for better measures and policies for societal progress. This year, the strapline, ‘Transforming Policy, Changing Lives’ signalled a move forward from simply measuring progress, to translating these measures into policy and practice.

The conference highlighted that much work has been done in recent years to develop robust indicators and collect data on wellbeing across different countries, and there was a strong sense that wellbeing is now part of a mainstream agenda, backed by evidence and data. This is coupled with a growing international acceptance of the need to move beyond GDP as the sole measure of progress. At a global level the recently announced Sustainable Development Goals were seen to represent a political commitment and buy in to achieving equitable, sustainable wellbeing for all (despite some criticism of the omission of subjective wellbeing).

With over 140 speakers and 1300 participants from 60 different countries the forum provided a space to share some of the success stories and highlight the impact of policies and frameworks which are already working to increase wellbeing:

  • In the opening session we heard from the Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs of Iceland, about how Iceland responded to the recent financial crisis while maintaining one of the lowest levels of poverty and inequality in Europe. He explained how selecting policies that put an emphasis on the welfare state and social inclusion had helped safeguard living standards, and have not precluded economic growth.
  • I spoke to Martine Durand about the OECD’s user-based index, part of the Better Life Initiative which allows people to compare aspects of wellbeing across different countries. The interactive index has been successful in engaging the public in deciding what matters to their wellbeing, with more than 80,000 people taking part to date.
  • Paul Litchfield, chief medical officer at British Telecom, spoke about the successful Work Fit wellbeing programme that was introduced to promote health and in particular to tackle mental ill-health among employees, the major cause of absenteeism across the company. The programme has become an integral part of the company’s strategy and has seen great benefits to staff and the company as a whole.

It was also inspiring to talk to some of the local organisations working with communities both on the ground in Mexico and around the world to improve wellbeing. These examples and others show the level of progress that has been made towards putting wellbeing into policy and practice, however there remain a number of gaps, challenges and issues that still need to be addressed.

For example, how do we maximise wellbeing today without risking the wellbeing of tomorrow? Katherine Trebeck from Oxfam emphasised that the progress we are making in reducing poverty and increasing wellbeing is at risk from man-made threats to our environment such as climate change. She described the Doughnut model developed by Oxfam, which draws attention to the twin challenges of providing a decent standard of living for people while living within our environmental limits. This approach calls for a new economic model which can deliver a more sustainable society and good quality of life for all.

Another theme running throughout the conference was inequality, highlighted in particular by Joseph Stiglitz in his talk on ‘Shared Prosperity for All’. He emphasised the costs (social, political and economic) of failing to achieve fair distribution of income, consumption and opportunity across social groups. Given that countries with the same economic models have very different levels of inequality, it is clear that policies are crucial in this context.

A final word on the importance of statistics: metrics remain key to diagnosing problems in society, and, by the same token, what we don’t measure we can’t fix. There are many factors that affect wellbeing that we do not account for, such as the indignity someone experiences on not being considered for a job because of the colour of their skin, or the feeling of insecurity around health, jobs and retirement in countries affected by the Eurozone crisis. Better data collection is needed around these as well as other aspects including wealth, governance, trust, personal security and social connections in order to design policies that can really improve people’s lives.

Watch videos of all the presentations and discussions from the OECD conference here

The Scottish Universities Insight Institute in collaboration with Scotland’s Futures Forum and partners supported a programme of work in 2014 aimed at better understanding, measuring and promoting wellbeing in Scotland. View the overall findings from the programme here.

Author: scotinsight

The Scottish Universities Insight Institute supports programmes of knowledge exchange which address and provide insight on substantial issues that face Scotland and the wider world. Our programmes break down disciplinary and organisational barriers in bringing together academics from different backgrounds, policymakers and practitioners to mobilise existing knowledge in fresh ways through sustained and collaborative focus on a shared issue. Our member universities are: Aberdeen, Dundee, Heriot Watt, St Andrews, Strathclyde, and Glasgow School of Art.

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