It seems David Cameron was serious about bringing well-being into the heart of government decision-making – he’s still speechifying like a man possessed on the topic. Some interesting musings as ever by Steve Richards of The Independent on the politics of this. Whatever my thoughts about Cameron, I think he’s onto a good thing here, both politically and in terms of public policy. He needs some evidence to justify saving some of the socially useful local institutions that need saving at the moment, like post offices and libraries.
The Big Society idea can still have legs but only if it’s not seen to be the deceptive “good cop” to the cuts agenda’s “bad cop”. He needs to start saving some libraries, to put it bluntly, to show he really does understand what people value and how society works at a grass roots level. If the Big Society isn’t on the side of those kind of campaigns, frankly most people aren’t going to get what it’s for and will conclude it is the fig leaf that many on the left claim it is.
Well-being measures could provide just the “evidence” Cameron needs to be able to steer the politically popular and socially-connected course he surely wants to take. Without them, he risks looking like every saved post office is saved reluctantly, that it is not part of the plan. With them, he can perhaps ride two horses at once: making the cuts and having a coherent way of working out when and how the worst excesses of them should be tempered.
The research interest in all this is of course that a lot of thought is going to have to go into determining how to establish these measures and how to track them. I’m not lucky enough to be one of the people working on this at the moment, but this is sure to be a fertile and fascinating area for the lucky qual researchers involved in mapping out the “well-being” territory. I’ll be watching with interest to see what emerges – and in particular, whether the measures they come up with will be grounded in behaviour or in attitudes. There will be strong arguments for sticking to measuring behaviour – finding behaviours that are proxies for well-being and measuring them. But can this be done in a meaningful way? We shall see.