International meetings of statisticians are hardly the most likely place for one to find passion and drama. Yet, in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, home to one of the major banking families of the 13th century, Juliet Michaelson and I took part in a debate which could be changing how we measure progress.
When nef started advocating subjective measures of well-being – i.e. asking people how they feel their life is going – as a tool to guide policy, we were entering almost virgin territory. But it seems that the world of government statistics has started to catch up with projects such as our Happy Planet Index. Subjective well-being is part of official statistics in several countries including New Zealand, Canada and even the UK. nef is currently advising Eurostat, the EU’s official statistics body on the feasibility of including well-being indicators in their official sets. And the OECD is the unlikely home of a major Global Project on Measuring the Progress of Societies, championed until now by the organisation’s Chief Statistician, Enrico Giovannini.
It was the OECD that arranged the meeting aimed to encourage chief national statisticians to take subjective well-being measurement seriously. Chief statisticians and presidents from the statistics offices of the USA, Canada, Ireland, Spain and many other countries were present. The meeting was timed to follow on the heels of the ninth annual conference of the International Society for Quality of Life Studies (ISQOLS), ensuring many of the leading academics working on subjective well-being were also present.
The meeting showed that there was still work to be done. Many statisticians recognise that measuring subjective well-being is a central part of informing governments how well they are doing. They also see the benefits that subjective data provide in terms of understanding other areas. For example, well-being data can tell you something about the impacts of high or low social capital in an area. Academics such as Prof. John Heliwell at the University of British Columbia in Canada made a plea for statisticians to include a few subjective well-being questions in as many different surveys as possible. Meanwhile nef, alongside Prof. Felicia Huppert at the University of Cambridge, called for more textured measures of well-being, such as the National Accounts of Well-Being, so as to provide policy makers with a better understanding of the ways in which the nation’s population is doing well or not so well.
Some statisticians, howeever, were still very resistant to the idea of taking up precious ‘real estate’ on their surveys with questions about how people feel. They argue that they measure what they are told to, and that they are not being told to measure well-being. As Dr. Munir Sheikh, Chief Statistician of Statistics Canada put it, “It’s not my job to decide which data is more important. It’s the users.” Other statisticians disagreed, highlighting that statistics offices do have some flexibility to pre-empt data requests. Meanwhile, the academics argued that there is a chicken-and-egg situation: government bodies will not ask for well-being data until statistics offices collect it, and vice versa.
But, perhaps, for the sake of statisticians such as Dr. Sheikh, it is important that we make it clear that well-being is important. A recent UK poll found that 81% of people supported the idea that the Government’s prime objective should be the ‘greatest happiness’ rather than the ‘greatest wealth’. Given that’s the case, and given that statistics offices are public bodies whose duty it is to provide information to citizens on how our Government is faring, perhaps we all need to tell them just how much we’d like to know the state of well-being in our countries.