More than GDP : Measuring what matters

For much of the last century policy makers have made an assumption that greater economic wellbeing will lead to greater individual and societal wellbeing. This assumption is increasingly challenged as the relationship between our economy and social progress proves to be much more complex.

Carnegie (UK) Trust is working on a project to determine how to put new wellbeing measures into practice in the UK. As notions of quality of life, wellbeing and happiness gain currency within policy circles, a number of governments across the world are giving serious consideration to how to measure and monitor these concepts in order to factor them into policy making. This project will look at how we can ensure measures are factored into the policy making process, so that what we measure is what really matters.

In the UK the ONS has just completed a consultation on how to measure wellbeing, concluding that it is possible to measure wellbeing in a meaningful way, and identifying survey data that can contribute to monitoring wellbeing. Meanwhile in Scotland, last years Carnegie Roundtable on Measuring What Matters welcomed the Scottish Governments National Performance Framework.

But there are a number of countries that are ahead of the UK in this thinking. Not only are they more advanced in terms of how to measure and analyse wellbeing, but they have experience of using these measures to inform and shape policy thinking and implementation. Ultimately what policy makers measure will only matter if it influences how public policy is designed and delivered.

The piece of work being carried out by Carnegie (UK) Trust will focus on how to put into practice new wellbeing measures. It will seek to learn from international experience of how wellbeing measures have changed policy practices, and where there have been barriers to change.

Last year, the Carnegie (UK) Trust published the report that highlighted the fact that the current system of performance management used in Scotland, Scotland Performs, is not a million miles away from the dashboard of indicators that international experts like Professor Stiglitz have called for to move us away from reliance on economic indicators and towards a more holistic view of wellbeing and social progress.

As part of this project, and to understand better how others approach wellbeing measurement, Carnegie (UK) Trust has been carrying out a series of study visits to learn from international experience, including the State of Virginia in the US and Canada.

Virginia, like Scotland, continues to see the data as a tool developed and used by government agencies. The national and local initiatives on measuring wellbeing in Canada, on the other hand, had citizen engagement at their heart. The Canadian Index of Wellbeing, one of the most internationally respected programmes on measuring wellbeing, was initiated by a charitable foundation. At local level, Vital Signs programmes run by local Community Foundations produce reports on wellbeing in local areas with a view to directing their own activities and those of local government. Crucially, both these programmes have invested in citizen consultation to explore what wellbeing means to them and argue that compiling the data is not the end of the programme but just the beginning of a process of dialogue and community action.

Scotland Performs could learn a lot from these examples, but we also have home grown innovation, with the Oxfam Humankind Index showing how citizen engagement can help us to understand what wellbeing means to Scots. None of our study locations have yet managed to bring together community innovations with government performance management programmes. They operate in separate spheres of activity. But by bringing them together we could get the best of both worlds. Scotland has more opportunity to bring together these strands than most; with both the government systems in place and a range of charities and voluntary organisations willing to get involved. The independence debate will provide an added momentum for considering what Scotland wants, and what wellbeing means.

The question we now have to ask is what’s stopping us?


Jennifer Wallace leads the policy team at Carnegie UK Trust which covers a wide range of policy and research areas under the three themes of Enterprise and Society, People and Place and Knowledge and Culture. The Trust seeks to improve the lives and wellbeing of people throughout the UK and the Republic of Ireland through influencing public policy and demonstrating innovative practice.

The article has been taken from the Future of Scotland Bulletin and from

Click here for our More than GDP: Measuring What Matters report.

1 Comment on More than GDP : Measuring what matters

  1. Anne Casey // August 8, 2012 at 8:30 pm // Reply

    It is wonderful, in the midst of so many depressing economic indicators, that there should be work being done on alternaive indicators. Work like this allows us to focus on aspects of our life, other than the financial. Unfortunately there has been too much emphasis on looking only at money and not enough credence given to the idea that for many of us, it is not our main motivator.

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