When I helped to launch, in London and Bristol, the What Works centre on Wellbeing I said we wanted to gather evidence from around the globe. So it is fitting that I have spent the last week on the other side of the world urging people to pass on their experiences and learning on wellbeing. More specifically I have been in Australia meeting senior officials at the Federal and State level, think tanks and private sector representatives to explain the importance of focusing on wellbeing and behaviour change.
At lectures and seminars in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, I explained the importance of broad measures of wellbeing and their superiority to activity measures like GDP as indicators of the success of governments and countries. I find that explaining that UK GDP is now enhanced by increased illegal drug trade and prostitution, while the value of volunteering is not, gets the point across quite vividly! My visit played out against the G20 taking place in Brisbane, right in the middle of my Australian visit. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping had turned the focus onto climate change to the discomfort of their host Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Nevertheless the G20 was attempting to enhance wellbeing by stimulating infrastructure spending and employment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In Australia the government is attempting to eradicate its deficit of 2.5%GDP , rather low compared to the levels in UK and many other European countries. Having got through the financial crisis relatively unscathed there has not been a sense of a burning platform. This, together with some interesting complications thrown up in the last Australian federal election in the influence of minor parties, especially in the Senate or upper house, has made it harder to make radical changes but it has created a desire to understand how to deliver ‘ better for less’. Hence there was a lot of interest in the measures implemented by the UK government to reduce the deficit from 11%GDP to half that level and particularly the impact on public services and public servants. There was an interesting thread through all of the conversations that tied together the refocusing back on fundamental questions about the value and purpose of government in the first place, which is a necessary part of the broader wellbeing approach, and consequential decisions about the shape and performance of government and the behaviour and skills of public servants in the 21st century.
I emphasised the unusual nature of the UK recovery which was employment strong but accompanied by a stagnation in real wages. The nature of the problems reinforces one key conclusion from a wellbeing approach to macro policy- namely that steady, consistent (and sometimes lower) growth is better than increasingly unsustainable booms and busts. Although there has been some work, and considerably interest, within various departments, including the Australian Treasury over recent years, the concepts and practice of “wellbeing” are still only used rarely in Australia and have yet to establish themselves as a consistent and influential part of the wider political and policy discussion.
However while I was there Deloitte produced a paper on Unlocking true growth,G20: Insights from the Social Progress Index 2014
Their index is an unweighted average of many indicators but includes no measures of subjective wellbeing. Among the G20 their index puts Netherlands at the top but then the Scandinavians, as usual, do very well. Australia ranks above the UK which in turn beats the United States. Although I have questions about aspects of the methodology, it is good to see recognition that “growth on its own without social progress is an empty goal.” The Australians are also beginning to explore behaviour change techniques. Rory Gallagher and Alex Gyani, as part of the Behavioural Insight team, are based in New South Wales in the Department of Premier and Cabinet and are running a number of projects to demonstrate the merits of the new approaches.
For example they have tested various ways to speed up the payment of taxes and fines, saving the NSW government millions of dollars. They have found quicker, more effective ways to get people back to work after injuries. They are investigating how to improve handling of domestic violence and child obesity, both particularly challenging problems in Australia. But probably most important of all, they are running Master classes to train officials in applying behavioural approaches.
I was also fortunate enough to meet Shlomo Benartzi, a highly respected behavioural economist from UCLA. He explained his latest research on digital solutions to key policy problems, which will be published next year.
At each venue I have described the role of the various What Works centres that are already up and running. And I have explained what we hope will be provided by the Wellbeing centre in terms of agreeing common methodologies and collecting and sharing examples of what works and what doesn’t. Of course we need to explain that what works in one country or community might not work in another.
At my Sydney University lecture I used the example of various messages attempting to persuade people to sign up as organ donors. You can hear the podcast of the lecture (the podcast link is on the right of the linked page).
The Australian audience felt the positive message about saving lives would work best whereas in the UK the reciprocal message- if you would want an organ donation if needed, why not donate yourself- worked best. Nevertheless as we collect evidence of such experiments around the world we may well be able to determine which particular policies work universally. I would like to thank Martin Stewart-Weeks and Deloitte, Cisco and Telstra who supported the visit, for helping me to get across these messages to a wide audience in Australia.
One of the events at which I spoke was the 2014 Spann Oration, given in Sydney for the Institute of Public Administration in NSW. The Oration, given each year, is in honour of the work of Professor Richard Spann, one of the Australia’s leading public administration academics. You can find the Oration here, published by The Mandarin, a new online magazine in Australia that concentrates on issues of government reform, the public sector and public policy.
→ Read a broader summary of some of the main themes and topics from the weeks’ conversations and meetings.