Wellbeing is a good basis for resetting UK government policies

The writer is a former UK cabinet secretary

After winning an impressive parliamentary majority last December, Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, vowed that his “people’s government” would make 2020 “a year of prosperity and growth and hope”. That hasn’t happened. He wanted to level up but inequalities have increased both between generations and across the country. So there is a real need for a reset to “build back better”.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown us there is more to life than money. What really matters is the wellbeing of the people, particularly those who are least satisfied with their lives. This should be the basis for the government to reset its vision for a post-Covid world.

What would this mean in terms of practical policy changes? First, we know that mental health has deteriorated as a result of measures to control the virus. Reversing this is essential. There is a danger that the diversion of resources to Covid treatments and vaccines will prioritise tackling physical, visible problems, while again making mental health a matter of secondary importance.

This makes no sense. Physical and mental health problems need to be tackled together. In education we have come to understand that our children gain much from school that is not directly related to passing exams. Parents and teachers want children to be kind, resilient and enterprising. It will help them throughout life in many ways, including passing exams.

Various pilot schemes are being set up to assess how an approach around enhancing children’s wellbeing could become the explicit focus of all schools. On the economy, a focus on wellbeing would mean trying hard to keep people attached to the labour market. This is one of the main reasons why furlough schemes make a lot of sense. Being out of a job not only means a loss of income. It reduces self-esteem and leads to loss of skills. This shows up in detailed analysis of what causes low wellbeing.

There may be a need to increase spending on infrastructure to help less prosperous parts of the UK, but social capital matters as well as physical capital. Encouraging community organisations and helping the civic sector to reach its full potential would enhance wellbeing. During the crisis the demands on charities have increased and their funding has gone down. But communities have discovered how much they can help each other. This sense of social togetherness must not be lost. I am chairing the Law Family Commission on Civil Society to investigate how to make the most of this neglected sector of the economy.

At the macro level, the Treasury should redirect resources to enhance social capital and, more generally, to spend a much greater proportion of taxpayers’ money on prevention rather than cure. We need people out of prison and in jobs, as keeping them incarcerated or unemployed is very expensive. The emphasis should be on reducing crime and the fear of crime, not on increasing police numbers by some arbitrary amount.

This means spending more now on education and reskilling in both schools and prisons. It should be seen as an investment, even if the national accounts don’t measure it that way. Similarly in health, the key is to spend more on prevention promoting healthy lifestyles, leaving hospitals for “repairs”, as Nigel Crisp, the former chief executive of the English NHS, has put it.

At the micro level, the Treasury’s bible on investment appraisal, the Green Book, now allows for more sophisticated analyses that measure costs and benefits in terms of their impact on social wellbeing. This suggests a need to focus on left-behind areas where average wellbeing is low. Such an approach is long overdue.

The government has struggled to explain how it has balanced the direct health advantages of lockdown measures against the economic and indirect health costs. An approach based on wellbeing would allow a more straightforward comparison of these different factors. The practical tools exist. Of course, measurement is hard, but roughly measuring the right concepts is a better way to make policy choices than using more precise measures of the wrong concepts.

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Governments around the world are realising that a wellbeing framework helps them to deliver what people really want. It is also good politics. Research shows that incumbent governments tend to be thrown out when overall wellbeing has declined during their term.

Prime ministers from New Zealand to Iceland and many countries in between have adopted this agenda successfully. It would provide the ideal framework for Mr Johnson to build back better and level up the UK economy. It might also extend his tenure.

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