I recently attended the Wellbeing and Public Policy conference in Wellington. There were over 100 presentations on a wide range of approaches to wellbeing, including planning for wellbeing, wellbeing theory and measurement, children’s/youth wellbeing, cultural wellbeing and community wellbeing. We also heard from government ministers about their plans for wellbeing policy.

A major theme of the conference was, unsurprisingly, how to measure wellbeing to ensure that policies aimed at increasing wellbeing are having the intended effect. This is particularly important in light of the message from Grant Robertson on the Wellbeing Budget, planned for 2019. As part of this budget, the Government intends to consider all policies through a wellbeing lens; this will be mostly informed by the Living Standards Framework. This framework was developed by Treasury and is based on the OECD wellbeing framework, with adjustments to reflect the New Zealand context. At the core of the framework are four capitals (Human, Financial/Physical, Social, Natural) which are linked to more specific indicators.

As someone who works in the education sector, where no doubt wellbeing will become one of the broader outcomes against which we are assessed and funded, this is of particular interest to me. I would love to see a movement away from indicators which are easy to measure but offer little insight into the actual impact of education programmes on learners, and framing outcomes in the context of wellbeing may be a way to achieve this.

The various presentations and discussions at this conference ranged from philosophical debates to current experiences of small-scale wellbeing initiatives. I noted a few keys ideas across the presentations; the most obvious is the need for an agreed upon definition of wellbeing. We heard that the Living Standards Framework aims to provide this, although the debate is ongoing over how it should be used, how the capitals are interpreted and what indicators might be effective.

Another key idea is that it is not always possible to measure wellbeing directly; furthermore, the wellbeing impact may not appear in the area in which it is delivered. For example wellbeing initiatives in education may have impacts in the health and justice sectors. This may be solved by the holistic approach taken by the Living Standards Framework; however this is dependent on the indicators used. Research presented at the conference found that using indicators as proxies for wellbeing was problematic and did not consistently reflect actual wellbeing.

The final idea that I heard throughout the conference was the tension between providing for current and future wellbeing. It was noted that the four capitals in the Living Standards Framework are future focussed while the indicators are based on current data and may not provide information on the broader state of wellbeing in New Zealand. Successful adoption of this framework will require a change in the way policies are created, funded and measured. What we heard from Ministers indicated that they are interested in buying sustainable change rather than narrow outputs of one-off outcomes. This is a promising message; I hope it translates to more effective policy in this area.

Link to conference content: https://www.confer.nz/wellbeingandpublicpolicy2018/programme/

Living Standards Framework: https://treasury.govt.nz/information-and-services/nz-economy/living-standards/our-living-standards-framework

The OECD is driving the focus on wellbeing:  http://www.oecd.org/statistics/better-life-initiative.htm