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One evening earlier this year, 25 people gathered in a room in Pontypool, Wales, surrounded by flipcharts, post-its and plenty of food. One woman reflected on life, work and wellbeing:

“I wish I’d [started working part time] years ago, because I was too busy working and looking after my daughter to realise the importance of wellbeing. Now, later on in life, I do understand it. I’m calmer, I’m enjoying myself more.”

Her comment was in response this question: how can government support and encourage low earners to increase their income? If you work part-time one of the most obvious ways to do this would be to increase your hours. But during the conversations it became clear this wouldn’t be a good thing for everyone.

By thinking about their own wellbeing, the people we met in Pontypool challenged the underlying assumptions of the policy question. Yes, if they worked longer hours they would have more income, something everyone agreed is good for wellbeing, but this had to be traded off against other things such as spending time with family and friends. Should increasing the working hours of low earners really be an aim of government policy at all?

This was one of 15 workshops we’ve held around the country this year, funded by Sciencewise and the Cabinet Office, exploring how wellbeing can be used by the public to consider policy. We’ve been working with policy makers to explore three live policy challenges:

  • increasing the incomes of low earners (working with the Department for Work and Pensions)
  • reducing loneliness (working with the Cabinet Office Social Action Team)
  • encouraging the take-up of community rights (a specific set of rights introduced in the 2011 Localism Act) and considering other ways of communities taking more control of local decision-making (working with the Department for Communities and Local Government).

In order to explore these questions, we hired public dialogue specialists Hopkins Van Mil. We recruited a range of people of different ages and backgrounds who would be affected by each policy area, and gave them an opportunity to consider evidence, talk to experts and interact with policy makers over a number of hours to come up with measured opinions on these policy issues.

Our report, launched today, describes the findings from this process and NEF’s suggestions for policy priorities coming out of it.

One of the most exciting parts of the process was how engaged people were with wellbeing as an issue. Since 2010 the government has made great strides in measuring population wellbeing. The question now is how to use that data, and other evidence on wellbeing, to create better policies.

Progress is being made – in September we heard from MPs on their opinions on policies which could increase wellbeing, based on the evidence base. Lord Gus O’Donnell’s report on wellbeing earlier this year also proposed the use of wellbeing cost-benefit analysis. Just today a new article from the Lancet added to the evidence of the important impact wellbeing can have on life expectancy.

These are welcome steps, and embedding wellbeing into politics and the civil service is an important ingredient in a broader move. However, if wellbeing is to achieve its full potential, it will need to become a public agenda.

During these dialogues, we found that wellbeing had the potential to do just that. It seemed that introducing a wellbeing lens to the discussions helped participants engage with the policy issues in a meaningful way. It helped them relate policies to things that really mattered to them, to their quality of life, and to engage more deeply with the process, sometimes in quite an emotional way. They were then able to use this to challenge the assumptions underpinning the policy design and in some cases the objectives, and on this basis to make quite broad suggestions for changes to policy priorities.

This suggests that engaging with the public on issues of wellbeing can not only create policies which better meet the needs of those they aim to serve, but also (and perhaps more importantly at a time of high distrust in politics) has the potential to reconnect people to the policy-making and political process.