Written on 5 Oct 2021 by Professor Diane Coyle, Dr Matthew Agarwala, Dr Mark Fabian, Dr Anna Alexandrova and Marco Felici

Respecting the subject in subjective wellbeing public policy

A greater role should be given to participatory and deliberative modes of policymaking to define, analyse, and measure wellbeing and ultimately make policy decisions - known as the ‘citizen perspective’.

The idea that public policy should aim to improve people’s wellbeing – rather than GDP growth or other standard economic measures – is gaining traction. A number of governments, including in Scotland and Wales have started to think about tracking wellbeing measures.

The term used in the research and policy literature is ‘subjective wellbeing’ (SWB): typically operationalised in terms of recently experienced mood states like happiness or fear, and life satisfaction as measured on a scale from 1–10. Much of the policy advocacy for the relevance of this data stems from an understandable desire to move beyond the constraints of 20th century economic analysis. Policy, it is reasonably argued, should promote wellbeing as what we really care about, and not growth or income. SWB data provides a way to take account of the non-financial impacts of non-monetary things like charitable works, social infrastructure, and mental health care.

Yet the vast majority of those advocating wellbeing policy adopt the same ‘social planner’ paradigm that underpins traditional economic welfare analysis. This perspective is broadly technocratic, emphasising fixed technical standards determined by experts as to what constitutes good measurement and good policy and empowering the ‘objective’ experts to make decisions on the basis of ‘hard’ numbers.

The social planner paradigm envisages the scientist, usually an economist or psychologist, as a dispassionate expert adopting a ‘view from nowhere’, somehow outside the society of which they are apart. They offer advice on which measures of wellbeing are valid as decided by them and how to maximise social welfare to an equally dispassionate ‘social planner’ who makes policy decisions. In the economic tradition, ‘welfare’ is defined in terms of preference satisfaction. In SWB policy advocacy, it is defined instead as how people feel. Apart from this distinction, the paradigm of analysis and ‘rational’ policymaking is identical.

In our new working paper, we argue that wellbeing public policy (WPP) could and should lend itself to a more transformative policy agenda, but rather than emphasising supposedly impartial experts, we argue this agenda should embrace the inherently value-laden nature of wellbeing as a concept. This would see WPP relinquish the social planner perspective’s arguably naïve ideal of objective analysis by technical experts, and instead give a greater role to participatory and deliberative modes of policymaking to define, analyse, and measure wellbeing and ultimately make policy decisions. We call this the ‘citizen perspective’ as opposed to the ‘social planner perspective’.   

The starting point is to recognise the advantages of the ‘social planner perspective’. It is conveniently familiar to bureaucrats and their advisors. Moreover, it creates an expectation of evidence-based policymaking and the assessment of policy impacts, both of which aid democratic accountability of policymakers. This is particularly relevant in representative democracies, where citizens want experts at least consulted on issues in which citizens themselves have limited expertise. Of course we should welcome expertise and hope experts try to be as objective as possible.

But the social planner perspective also has distinct weaknesses, especially with regards to WPP. First, its tools of welfare analysis are grounded in a narrow kind of utilitarianism and it struggles to engage with other ethical paradigms, such as the Aristotelian capabilities approach advocated by scholars such as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, justice, and participatory democracy.

Second, its emphasis on ‘evidence-based’ policy is clumsy when applied to wellbeing. The academic discourse around SWB is characterised by heated debates regarding what the construct is, whether the measures of it are systematically biased, whether the construct validation efforts behind them are meaningful, and what sort of inferences can reasonably be drawn from SWB data. Yet at this time, there are few studies of SWB policy interventions that establish causal relationships between policies and wellbeing outcomes. All this is to say that SWB policy is far from being able to meet the ‘evidence-based’ standard that the social planner perspective typically expects.

Third, the ‘view from nowhere’ ideal of the social planner perspective is arguably unsuitable for wellbeing policy, as wellbeing depends so much on specific contexts. Much SWB research and policy advocacy is structured around an econometric ‘happiness equation’ that would provide parameter estimates for various ‘causes’ of SWB, such as health, community infrastructure, or local crime rates. Advocates envision a wellbeing expert making policy recommendations from a position of centralised knowledge on the basis of these estimates.

Yet these parameter estimates are sensitive to local conditions, as are the causes of SWB more broadly. Notably, which variables are most influential on life satisfaction varies depending on the scale of analysis. Education, for example, is a poor predictor of life satisfaction at the individual level but a strong predictor at the local area level. Research involving local stakeholders in developing wellbeing policy has also demonstrated the idiosyncratic values and priorities of stakeholders across different contexts. Studies with indigenous Australians, for example, have unearthed issues like the health of local fishing spots, which do not feature in the WPP literature.

Our ‘citizen perspective’ aims to provide a useful complement to social planner perspective in shaping wellbeing policies.

The first feature of this citizen perspective is participation. Wellbeing is what philosophers call a ‘thick concept’, meaning that  both describes and evaluates. As policies involve making value judgements, liberal-democratic norms demand that these judgements by made with the involvement of citizens.

The need for participation points to deliberation and coproduction as key modes of wellbeing policymaking. Citizens, experts, practitioners, and other stakeholders must work together to define wellbeing for a particular context, such as the environment, urban form, or schools, to develop measures that capture that definition, and to identify outcomes that all involved can agree constitute steps realising that wellbeing. 

Far from ‘best practice’ being delivered from the centre, coproduction at the local and contextual level leads to variation in wellbeing policy. Rather than standardised measures or policies, what the centre should provide is a guide to the process of coproducing WPP at a local level or for a particular context.

The citizen perspective is not without its own weaknesses, as we discuss in the paper, and it is more appropriate for some areas of policy (service delivery and local government, for example), than others (national statistics, central finance). Nonetheless, it provides an important complement to the social planner perspective, and holds promise for ensuring that WPP is genuinely transformative of the way policies are drawn up and implemented.

The project is funded by the UKRI Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and UKRI Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

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  • About the author

    Professor Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy

    Professor Coyle co-directs the Institute with Professor Kenny. She is heading research under the progress and productivity themes.   Learn more

    Diane Coyle 2018
  • About the author

    Dr Matthew Agarwala, Project Leader: The Wealth Economy

    Matthew Agarwala, Economist, Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge.   Learn more

    Matthew Agarwala
  • About the author

    Dr Mark Fabian, Research Associate

    Mark is a welfare economist working on the Measuring Well-Being project at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. His research focuses on the epistemology and ethics of well-being metrics, especially how policymakers and citizens understand well-being, its measurement, and the legitimacy of well-being policy interventions.    Learn more

  • About the author

    Dr Anna Alexandrova

    Anna is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Science at University of Cambridge and a Fellow of King's College, having previously taught at the University of Missouri St Louis. She writes on philosophy of social sciences, especially economic modelling, explanation, and the sciences of well-being. She was a recipient of the Philosophy of Science Association Recent PhD Essay Prize.

  • About the author

    Marco Felici

    Marco is a PhD student at the Department of Land Economy and his research focuses on household finance, housing and well-being. He was previously a Research Assistant at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and a Research Analyst at the European Central Bank. He holds a Master's in Economics from the Barcelona GSE and a Bachelor's in International Economics from Bocconi University.

    Marco Felici