The limited usefulness of Gross Domestic Product is well known. It counts quantity, not quality, and measures activity without discerning whether it’s useful or not. Nevertheless, GDP remains the baseline measure of success for most nations. Running a health check on economic activity makes sense when countries are recovering from war or depression, or are under-developed. Using GDP in over-developed countries may actually make things worse. If citizens are already overworked, overspent and overweight, an abstract ‘more’ is not what they need.
We know this. President Kennedy spoke passionately about the subject and alternative metrics have been developed by the dozen. It’s hard to say why none of them have been adopted. I suspect it’s simply because the few people who value the primitive standards of GDP have a louder voice in government than the minority that don’t. That, and the fact that the moment you start criticising GDP, you’re on a slippery slope towards the ex-communicable offense of questioning growth itself.
David Cameron however, believes in diversifying our measures of success, and tasked the Office of National Statistics with developing a measure of national wellbeing. The ONS has been working on this now for several months, and when you think about it, it’s really not an easy task. Critics have mocked the idea of asking people how happy they are as the epitome of the nanny state. Happiness is entirely subjective, and doesn’t sit well in the field of statistics in the first place. But well-being is broader than happiness alone, and many of the underlying reasons for a sense of well-being are much more quantifiable – life expectancy or education, for example.
What the ONS has done is conduct a major national conversation. Over the six months to April they held 175 events and spoke to over 7,000 people. Others answers questions online or sent off short postcard questionnaires. In all there were 34,000 responses, of which mine was one.
This week, we got to see some initial results. Top of the list of things we think are important are health, relationships, job satisfaction, and the quality of our environment. A sense of fairness and equality matters. Access to green space is important. Participation in culture and creative activities were mentioned, along with faith, and the way we use our time.
These priorities are on the one hand intuitive, to the point of being obvious. On the other, the government doesn’t bother to measure most of them. But the government works for us, and these are the things that we think matter most – thanks for finally asking.
Next, the ONS will go away and choose what and how to count up these things in an intelligent fashion, and develop some mechanism of aggregating them. Once they’ve settled on some questions to ask, 200,000 adults will take part in the first survey later this year. The first national accounts of wellbeing will then released in July 2012.
Off course, the real usefulness of this project is yet to be seen. The extent to which the government is actually responsible for our happiness is debateable, although it’s clear that decisions can affect it in all kinds of ways. The key thing is what the government chooses to do with the data afterwards. It is bound to play second-fiddle to GDP, and may be ignored altogether. Then again, it broadens our definitions of progress, and it will provide a new tool for holding the government accountable, and that can only be a good thing.