This is a transcript of Katherine Trebeck’s remarks to the APPG on Wellbeing Economics at the United Kingdom Parliament on 11 June 2019
The Wellbeing Economy Alliance works across the world and across sectors to build an economy in service of human and ecological wellbeing.
Understanding where that agenda is up to can be understood by looking at:
1 The forgers (those policy makers grasping the mettle and putting a wellbeing economy agenda into practice)
2 The frontiers (where are we standing now and what is the next challenge?); and
3 What is fraught (the barriers and the tensions still to be worked through)?
The forgers are the policy makers – civil servants and politicians – rolling up their sleeves and delivering the sort of changes needed. You see this in Scotland with its National Performance Framework and its leadership of the Wellbeing Economy Government partnership. You see it in other initiatives such as work on making the economy circular and businesses more inclusive. And just today the announcement that Scottish Enterprise would shift its attention to supporting businesses that deliver decent work, fairness and tackle inequality.
Other forgers are Wales with its Future Generations Commissioner and New Zealand with its Wellbeing Budget. US states such as Maryland and Vermont are adopting the Genuine Progress Indicator and Oregon has a 10 Year Budget. Iceland is forging ahead with action for gender equality and Costa Rica on biodiversity.
These examples show embracing the wellbeing economy agenda and forging ahead is not just about scattering the word “wellbeing” in the title of policy documents or in the text of political speeches – it is about robust change in policy and decision making.
And that brings us to the next frontier we are facing. These are pockets of good practice, but their isolation and existence next to policies that are counter to a wellbeing economy agenda speaks to an incoherence in policy regimes. Mixed messages are being given – but at least mixed is better than the message of the past in which was a narrow fixation on GDP GDP GDP!
Now, we are at a point where acceptance that GDP is flawed is widespread – the question is now how not if GDP should be replaced (or at least complemented as a measure of progress and national success).
The next stage has to be how to take these patches of good practice and make a quilt? And that is about joining up the work of the forgers so the economy itself is changed. Repurposing and then reorienting decisions and budgets and incentives and procedures and power in government departments. Such as recognising that if the education department does its job well then the police department will see savings, that if teams looking after local parks and green space do their job well then health services will be under less pressure.
And what is still fraught?
Clearly, the timeliness of data is a challenge. GDP is sticky as a supposed measure of progress because it is reported on frequently and people think they know what it means. And while there is a plethora of data relevant to a wellbeing economy collected and collated, it needs to be better used and decision makers scrutinised according to this information.
The media is also a constraint – until the morning news shows, the day after a national budget is announced, ask the finance minister what it means for increasing collective wellbeing instead of economic growth, then this agenda is still marginal. And until the definition of an economic crisis shifts away from incremental falls in GDP to questions around economic inequality, numbers of people feeling financially insecure, the numbers turning to food banks and the extent to which people can and do access green space, then we’ve got work to do.
And finally there is the fraught question of definitions. Is it a matter of taking subjective wellbeing as the definitive measure or alongside societal or collective wellbeing with SWB as a component part?
There are questions on the adequacy of both – is SWB too anthropocentric? Inadequately attentive to economic inequalities? Are we talking about hedonic or eudemonic?
And for collective wellbeing there are also questions – who defines it? How is it measured and what proxies make sense? Who is the collective? And over what time period are we looking?
But these slightly fraught issues not withstanding, the work of the forgers and where the frontiers have been pushed show that while there is work still to do, progress has been made.