Are we going to get a new definition of progress?

Are we going to get a new definition of progress?

Charles Seaford, Head of the Centre for Well-being


The first meeting of the Measuring National Well-being Forum, convened by Office for National Statistics, met this week. Charles Seaford attended.


At the end of November the Prime Minister announced that the Office for National Statistics would from this April be measuring ‘not just…our standard of living but…our quality of life’ and on Wednesday I joined a group convened by the ONS to discuss how to do this. As one of the academics present put it, people have been arguing about this for at least two and half thousand years, the nature of the good life being one of the central concerns of philosophy, and we certainly didn’t resolve it in the two and half hours we spent on the subject. Fascinatingly, though, by April, there will be at least a first stab at an official view. As one of the visitors from overseas said, the UK really is pioneering in this field.


One of the issues discussed was how to establish a global standard to enable international comparisons, useful both for policy analysis but also, given our natural interest in how we are doing compared with others, crucial to getting widespread popular interest. GDP is calculated, broadly speaking, the same way around the world – which means we can compare ourselves with our neighbours and judge our politicians accordingly. Do people think 2% is a good growth rate – yes if everyone else is on 1%, no if they are on 3%. The same need to make comparisons will probably apply to measures of quality of life or well-being – and indeed our own Happy Planet Index has achieved the impact it has partly because it takes the form of an international league table. Because the UK is a pioneer, we are well positioned to influence the international standards needed to make such comparisons possible.  


There was also a discussion about  the different elements of well-being that might be included in any headline measure – ‘subjective’, ‘objective’, ‘material’ and so on – as well as other desirable properties of society such as resilience and sustainability. I made a plea that we dont mix up too many different kinds of thing in one measure; the danger of course is that if we try to measure all desirable things at once, the end result is obscure, and potentially very controversial. The way you combine apples and pears can lead to endless argument. Perhaps we need three big measures, one of well-being as people report it, one of the social conditions that contribute to this (including economic performance), and one of sustainability and resilience. The ONS officials present emphasised that this kind of thing is very much for public debate, partly through the ONS website and partly through events. Do let us know what you think too.


We then discussed the questions about individuals’ lives that need to be included in the survey. Initially there aren’t going to be very many (we also have thoughts on what you do if you could ask plenty), so they have to be got right – the right subjects, the right wording and even the right order – the way you word a question, where it appears in a survey, and even the kind of alternative answers you offer (such as ‘on a scale of one to ten’) has an enormous impact on what people say and can seriously distort the results. The current plan is to have a question on how satisfied people are with their lives, how happy they felt the previous day, and how valuable and worthwhile the things they do in their lives are (or something similar). I recommended that a question on relationships is included: many people would say these are the most important ingedient of well-being (or its absence) and, when successful, are often valued in themselves rather than simply as things that contributes to individual happiness.


The last part of the discussion was about how to stimulate a national debate. After David Cameron made his announcement I did a few media interviews where the tone was – shall we say – a little amused? "So are you happy? well you look happy. The Prime Minister says we should all be happy" and so on. We need to get beyond that. While the design of ONS surveys is not the staple of most saloon bar conversation, decisions about what is recognised as social progress are clearly important and  potentially of very wide interest indeed. The point was made that the connection with real policy change and thus real changes to people’s lives must be made clear. That is something that we at nef will be working on.