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National performance has traditionally been measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). However, over recent decades there have been moves to develop metrics that take wellbeing into account. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) developed a framework of national wellbeing indicators that has been in use since 2011.

There is a recognition that measurement itself should not be the end goal. Instead, proponents of a wellbeing approach argue that wellbeing data should inform government policy, by helping to identify spending priorities and evaluate which policy interventions are successful in improving people’s lives.

The UK has already implemented some measures intended to use wellbeing evidence in making and evaluating policy. In 2014, the Coalition Government set up the What Works Centre for Wellbeing. It commissions research from universities on the impact that different interventions and services have on wellbeing. The What Works Centre for Wellbeing recently reported that many areas named as priorities by a Commission on Wellbeing and Policy in 2014 had seen “surprisingly big shifts in policy and public opinion”, for example, prioritising mental health and addressing loneliness as a policy issue. Another development was the revision in 2018 of the Treasury Green Book guidance on public sector appraisal and evaluation to include references to wellbeing at all stages of policy development.

Despite these shifts, there remain calls for government to better embed a wellbeing approach in policy-making. In May 2019, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics suggested government departmental spending plans should be linked to an overall strategic goal to improve wellbeing. The New Zealand Government adopted such an approach with its 2019 wellbeing budget.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economists have concluded that national governments still face many challenges in moving from wellbeing measurement to policy application. These include methodological challenges in finding the best way to measure wellbeing impacts and account for them in cost benefit analyses. There are also practical challenges in organising government structures to implement change.

On 12 March 2020, the House of Lords is due to debate a motion moved by Baroness Tyler of Enfield (Liberal Democrat) that “this House takes note of the case for Her Majesty’s Government to use wellbeing as a key indicator of national performance when setting budgets, deciding policy priorities and reviewing the effectiveness of policy goals”.

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