A wellbeing framework – the first step for Stormont

We need to find more ‘unusual friends‘ if we are to galvanise the effort to collect and measure social progress.

With only a few months until September’s summit on the sustainable development goals charged with changing the world by 2030, governments are increasingly asked to take an international focus in their work. But does this presume that our governments currently measure how their own country is performing against all the outcomes covered by the sustainable development goals, such as ensuring lifelong learning for all, reducing inequalities, and developing sustainable energy sources? And if they are not, shouldn’t an important commitment be to address this nationally, to allow us to learn both who we can learn from and what may work well internationally?

Of all the sustainable development goals, the one that corresponds to the core purpose of the Carnegie Roundtable on Measuring Wellbeing in Northern Ireland is number 16: promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. Because although Northern Ireland is now a post-conflict society, serious challenges remain. These are challenges for the individual, including 30% of the population suffering from mental health problems, nearly half of which are directly related to the Troubles. And challenges for the political system, with current opposing party political views on implementing welfare reform bringing Stormont to a virtual halt.

After a year of speaking to a wide range of people about the need for change to address some of the most enduring challenges in Northern Ireland, the Roundtable believes that the time is right for the Northern Ireland Executive to set wellbeing as its collective goal, and to develop a wellbeing framework to guide and support the work of all public services in Northern Ireland. From this, progress in addressing the rest of the sustainable development goals, such as inclusive and sustainable economic growth, combatting climate change, and ensuring healthy lives for all, will follow.

But can this really be achieved, just from changing the government focus from economic growth measured by GDP to wellbeing? Well, wellbeing, with its focus on social, environmental, democratic and economic outcomes is about using what we know to create a better society, and engaging citizens in discussions about what this society should look like. Only by speaking to people across Northern Ireland will the Executive be able to develop a successful and meaningful framework for its work. This is why in its new report the Roundtable explains that after setting wellbeing as its collective goal, the next step for the Executive should be to build public engagement into the heart of the wellbeing framework.

Committing to a new government goal and narrative, and being informed by what is important to citizens’ wellbeing, would re-focus the whole public sector and put in motion new and innovative ways of working across the government. Only then will silos begin to break down and connections between the sustainable development goals, such as innovation and safe cities, gender equality and sustainable consumption, become clear.  If the Executive measures what matters nationally it may be able to help deliver what works internationally.

Wellbeing measurement, such as the OECD regional wellbeing map, allows us to find ‘unusual friends’ with similar levels of wellbeing. For example Northern Ireland is in the top 20% of all OECD regions (across 34 countries) in terms of the wellbeing dimension of the environment. It is up there with the Canary Islands, South Island in New Zealand and Alaska! That means something profound about domestic wellbeing that is not normally captured or exploited.

In terms of civic engagement Northern Ireland is in the bottom 20% of all OECD counties. The beauty of wellbeing data is that it allows the ‘question of why’. It encourages (but does not guarantee) a more thoughtful approach. If we learn that low place is shared with the Lake Geneva Region, the Azores and West Virginia then maybe we can explore a shared challenge and find solutions with these new friends.

Martyn Evans is Chief Executive of the Carnegie UK Trust and Co-Chair of the Carnegie Roundtable on Measuring Wellbeing in Northern Ireland.


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