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Well-being and policy

20th Mar 2014

In Berlin for release of the Gus O’Donnell report on Wellbeing and Policy, due for publication in London tomorrow. Gus, the former Cabinet Secretary to three Prime Ministers, took on the Commission both at the encouragement of the current PM (speech) but also because of Gus’s own passionate interest in the limits of GDP as a measure and guide to policy.

The report fleshes out what the policy world would look like if we genuinely prioritised increasing subjective wellbeing – life satisfaction, happiness and living a life that feels worthwhile. Alongside a ‘how to’ guide to measurement, the report urges a shift in policy focus towards: mental health; parenting skills; character and resilience building in schools; encouraging volunteering and giving (and yes, kindness!); addressing loneliness (over 3m over 65’s in the UK say they ‘often’ go for more than a week without seeing any friends, family or neighbours); creating physical environments that facilitate sociability and contact with nature; promote active welfare and wellbeing at work; public services and governance that promote respect and empowerment; and give the public better access to wellbeing data to better inform life choices, and in turn shape markets.

The report highlights specific programs and interventions, many with strongly behavioural roots, that have been shown to increase wellbeing. These range from Social and Emotional Learning programs (SEL), to Dunn and Norton’s work on giving, to Gilbert’s work on our tendency to mis-predict what will make us happy. But before Richard Thaler and our Chicago friends get too worried, the report also has a strong libertarian streak, looking at how governments can enhance and inform choice rather than ‘making’ us smile more often (though as an aside, experiments have shown that making yourself smile does indeed make you feel happier…)

Is this radical, or just apple pie? The contents and timelines of budgets, and newspapers give us the impression that nothing much changes. Today’s priorities and battles look much the same as yesterday’s. But a stroll through the centres of Westminster, Berlin, or Washington show us that this is not true. Westminster is full of grand buildings that show us that the priorities of governments from a 100 years ago were very different. Look at the Old Admiralty Building that dominates Horseguards parade in Westminster –it was the home to the longest continuous department of state in Britain (more than 300 years). Where once its rooms hosted plans to send our navy across the world, today they host the world coming to us (to sort out their visa problems). The huge War Office stands empty. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is as grand as ever, but today its budget and role is dwarfed by its young Departmental cousins that organise work and pensions, health, or education.

What would the great Ministries of State be in a world that really prioritised wellbeing? What would be the top jobs that our leading politicians and parties would fight for, and our brightest young things wish to serve? The Minister of mental health? The Ministry of relationships, or ‘social capital’ – supporting parenting, neighbouring, and trust between strangers? Some of today’s Ministries would surely be just as important, such as employment. Others might keep their titles, but change what they actually do: education, to fulfilment; communities and local government, from physical infrastructure to social connection.

Before we dismiss this strange future, and interesting report, we should peer at those great buildings of Ministries long gone. The Heads of the Admiralty from a century ago, or even the heads of the huge departments of housing and planning from a few decades ago, would have shook their heads in disbelief at the shape and priorities of government today. We should not be surprised if future governments and priorities look very different: they also just might look a lot like the world of the O’Donnell report.