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Barriers to implementing wellbeing at national level

An interview with Prof Enrico Giovannini about some of the existing barriers to wellbeing policy implementation and how to possibly overcome them
Despite all the statistical progress, and also this growing acceptance by academics that we need to go beyond economic measures, which barriers do you still identify that hinder a full implementation of wellbeing-focused policies? A recent report by a European research network, Brain Pool, highlights the six obstacles that prevent the statistical agenda to become easily a political agenda. First is that while for GDP, there is a scientific acceptance– although I always said, have you ever tried to measure GDP? I did, so don’t tell me that measuring happiness is more complicated, for example. But everybody believes– people believe that they know what GDP is about. This was 50 years of use that led to this kind of common thinking.
Now beside that, it’s true that the recent single number that can encompass environment, health, and so on and so forth– because some of these dimensions can be negatively correlated, so you cannot have a single figure. The other argument is that the way in which our government is organised doesn’t help in addressing with a cross-cutting view the problems we have. So should be the prime minister offices– whatever you want to call them– to take the responsibility for this common policy frameworks. But this is not happening in all countries. Germany now has just decided to establish initiative and the Chancellor will take leadership on that.
Another element that prevents from moving in this direction is the lack of analytical tools to have policy assessments in a comprehensive way. Of course, we have econometric models that allow advisors to minister– to play, let’s say– with the different instruments, and see what is the impact on the output. But we don’t have similar tools for the social and environmental dimensions. And the last point is that there is classical resistance of institutions to change. So as you can see, there are different ingredients. One of them is that typically, the advisors to current ministers were trained in the GDP framework. So we also have to rethink the curricula in universities, to train people to think in different ways.
And how can different wellbeing measures help to break down the silo thinking in public service reform? This is a very complicated question, because each government is organised according to a particular way. And it’s very difficult to make the different ministries work together. But this is exactly why we need the wellbeing framework– to push them to think in different ways and understand that there are trade-offs between policies, and that we have to take them into account. What would be the tipping point for countries to really take the wellbeing measurement initiative seriously? I would say that there isn’t a single model. In some countries, it was the political leadership. In other countries, it was pushed from the bottom of research initiatives.
The point is that only when you have both ingredients together– then the country takes it seriously. This can take time. It’s important to be persistent, but also to avoid mistakes, because you have only one shot available. If something goes wrong and people lose credibility or trust in these kind of initiatives, then it’s very difficult to do it again. Once a government has taken the initiative to take wellbeing forward, what is actually ensuring the sustainability, given that there might be political change and so on? This is exactly one of the problems that led several initiatives to die after a political cycle. So there could be two possible solutions. First is that you embed these kind of initiatives into the legislation.
Therefore, for example, parliaments run policy assessments exposed based on this. Or the other one is that you build a so strong community that keeps pushing governments to go ahead. The first, I think, is more effective. The second is more desirable, but more complicated to achieve.

In Week 1 we learned that there is international momentum behind ‘going beyond GDP’ and that considerable progress has been made in various countries to measure wellbeing.

Here we talk again to Professor Enrico Giovannini, former Chief Statistician of the OECD, to hear about the remaining barriers in the way of wellbeing policy implementation and how to overcome these.

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