RSS sections and groups meeting reports

Social Statistics Section report: Measuring national well-being: the story so far

Written by Alison Walker on . Posted in Sections and local group meeting reports

On April 7, the RSS Social Statistics Section hosted an event that looked at the progress made by the Measuring National Well-being Programme, launched by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) three years ago. Glenn Everett, the ONS Programme Director for the project, gave a very interesting presentation to a large audience on the background to developing the UK measures. He stressed that he was presenting a work in progress and that feedback would be very welcome. The discussant was Penny Young, Chief Executive of NatCen Social Research and the meeting at Errol Street, was chaired by Hetan Shah, Executive Director of the RSS.

Glenn explained that measuring ‘how a country is doing’ had largely rested on traditional economic measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But it has long been acknowledged that GDP was not designed to capture everything that determines society’s well-being. The aim of the Measuring National Well-being programme is to ‘develop and publish an accepted and trusted set of national statistics which help people understand and monitor well-being’.  

The Programme started with a national debate on ‘what matters to you?’ to ensure that measures will be relevant to government and to the wider public. This led to a framework based around individual well-being. Much data already existed but four new questions relating to life satisfaction, worthwhile life, and how happy / anxious yesterday have been added to ONS household surveys. Recent results showed that around 70-80% of people found life worthwhile, satisfactory and felt happy yesterday while 21% felt anxious. Regression analyses had shown that self-reported health, employment status and relationship status were the most important aspects of subjective well-being. The measures are summarised in the 'National Well-being wheel of measures, March 2014'.

Glenn discussed the importance of the measures being used to improve the development, implementation and evaluation of policies. Some government departments are using them and the UK is involved in international development work. In terms of what next, Glenn mentioned encouraging further use, consultation and development of questions and continued input on international work.

Penny Young then gave a thoughtful and comprehensive response including:

Is the ONS work advancing measurement and understanding? The ONS is to be congratulated on the scientific approach. The measure has good face validity and, based on comparison with other work, good predictive validity.

Is it useful? GDP doesn’t capture all useful activity or values or the negative impact of economic activity so we do need something else; multidimensional nature is useful; there is a need to try to understand how the findings might relate to causality – for example fuel poverty linked to loneliness because people can’t invite others to a cold home.

Does the government have a role in advancing wellbeing? We need more evidence on use by the policy community and how much this has been taken on board – for example, therev was no mention in the Chancellor’s budget speech. She concluded that in taking the work forward we need to:

  • Nudge people to include questions on surveys
  • Improve time periods – ‘yesterday’ not long enough
  • Investigate causal pathways
  • Get the policy community more involved – in particular with the general election coming.

The discussion which followed included the following themes: how responsive are the measures (they may not change much over time but use of the distribution rather than an index gives more flexibility and allows analysis of difference by subgroup etc); would a single overall measure be helpful; the need for more international involvement; who is investigating what works; need for wide ranging analysis of the data; engagement with the media; should the time period be longer than ‘yesterday’.

The chair thanked the presenters for a very interesting meeting. Video from the event is available to view below.

Copies of the slides have been made available on the StatsLife event listing page.

Social Sciences Office for National Statistics (ONS) National well-being Social Statistics section

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