The WRM onion – what really matters in Wellbeing and BeyondGDP

happy onion catThe Brainpool final conference in Paris went off very well; plenty of agreement about the important things, but plenty of debate about how to do these important things best. I had a few ideas bubbling under before I went and the conference helped them to crystallise. Here is a quick run through what is at the front of my mind at the moment on these issues.

‘Wellbeing’, ‘Happiness’, ‘BeyondGDP’, ‘GDP+’: all of these terms are not quite right or, at best, misleading or ugly ways of saying what the concern is. The concern being about having a focus not solely on GDP in the many areas where there is solely a focus on GDP. A phrase was spoken at the Conference (possibly from Mikael Jungner from Finland) which I think sums it all up –

What Really Matters” (or what I will now call ‘WRM‘)

The beauty of this term is that it fits what I see as a multilevel, yet consistent, way of approaching policy analysis and impact assessment. Particularly, WRM allows a series of interlinked assessments to be made which in aggregate can produce a coherent view on social value.

On the other hand, WRM is not inconsistent with the other side of the ‘composite/single’ indicator argument that we saw in Paris. Gus O’Donnell was very forthright in his promotion of a single personal assessment ‘wellbeing’ measure sitting atop the thinking in this area. And if, indeed, it turns out that ‘wellbeing’ is WRM then we have lost nothing by using such a conception, and indeed have possibly gained something by revealing why we are using the measure we are.

In some cases, with a WRM view, GDP (modified or not) will be an appropriate measure – it may well be that in certain situations GDP is concluded, through participatory approaches, to be ‘what really matters’.

But it will be also obvious when GDP, or any kind of monetisation of difficult to measure elements of ‘the economy’ (whatever that is…), are inappropriate. Through WRM we will see that any approach that requires complex and difficult to calculate methodologies to turn human experience into a monetary value is unlikely to be a good reflection of ‘what really matters’. Indeed, I have a set of objections (or at least strong caveats) to monetising any kind of social value or wellbeing measure. This is because the currency into which other measures are being translated is not transferable equally across the population. Turning measures that are ‘consistent and coherent’, but noticeably different, into monetary values disguises their incompatibility but also deceives us in thinking that money is a unifying measure. But it is clear that any named monetary amount does not mean the same to me as it does to an Australian tycoon or a farmer in Cameroon.

So, on the two sides of the ‘single/composite’ debate there are problems. Wellbeing, self reported, is an individualistic methodological approach, which seems somewhat to miss the point if, as I think, we are trying to assess social value. One would like to assume that social value is not just the aggregation of individuals’ assessments of their own state of mind.

The ‘composite’ model for indicators is also fraught with problems; not least on ‘who decides’ about the weighting of the indicators that go into the final measure.

My (currently, in development) preferred approach can be derived from thinking about ‘what really matters’ as there are two obvious conclusions that leap out from such a phrase:

  • WRM is most likely different in different circumstances, different places at different times and
  • you should ask people ‘what really matters’.

So for now I will leave you with the image of a WRM onion, where the people who are most locally impacted by some issue are at the centre of the onion and, by moving out layer by layer, we produce by means of participatory methods a coherent, but varying, set of assessments of WRM.

Then, once the WRM-onion is complete, it will comprise a view of social value which is the best we can achieve. We must then hand the WRM-onion over to the political decision maker, because, after all, we are not getting rid of democracy. Yet.




About stuartastill

Consultant: interested in analysis that impacts politics i.e. everything! Can do difficult equations - but avoids when working with humans
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