Susan Oman says the measures for assessing national wellbeing will be irrelevant before we even begin measuring

In November 2010, David Cameron announced that the Government had asked the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to embark on the Measuring National Wellbeing programme. This was presented as a democratic public debate which would inform how and what would be measured in compiling figures to reflect the wellbeing of the nation. The public has been consulted twice. The results of the initial national debate demonstrated the public value of cultural participation, although the subsequent ‘domains’ that the ONS proposed for measurement made no reference to arts and culture. 

The second consultation found the public to be dissatisfied that the arts and culture, together with sport, faith, spirituality, religion and access to green spaces, had been excluded from the wellbeing measures. But while the latest report on the consultation acknowledges the importance placed by the public on these contributors to wellbeing (see p4), ONS claims that including these areas would introduce detrimental complexity. As the outcome of the public consultation fails to fit the prescribed measures, it appears more convenient to disregard public opinion than to adapt the measures to fit the outcome of the debate. The symbolic importance of asking the nation what it values about “what we do” is lost if the research is unable to respond to lived experience. In electing wellbeingmeasures that are not representative of national interests, measurement becomes irrelevant - before we even embark on the long journey to understand wellbeing.


In January, as the initial domains were under consultation, John Holden wrote that the absence of culture as a headline measure was indicative of culture’s “invisibility to policymakers”. The outcome of the consultation bears this out and arguably points to a grim policymaking blind spot. Apparently ‘what we do’, or perhaps, ‘what we want to do because it makes us feel good’ is irrelevant to policymakers. It seems now that the debate was never truly ‘public’. It is not the wellbeing of individuals that is of interest to the Government, but rather international perceptions of the nation’s wellbeing. Commentators commended Cameron’s apparent passion and bravery in calling for the controversial wellbeing measures, which served no obvious political agenda at the time.  It now appears wellbeing measurement in the UK is little more than a response to expectations that nations will comply with measurement that coheres on an international scale.  This has inevitably skewed the outcome of national debate. Cameron’s introductory speech aligned the UK programme with Nobel prize-winning Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, who were commissioned by former French president Sarkozy to investigate wellbeing. Their resultant report overlooks the arts and culture, as does the World Happiness Report, edited by Lord Layard and John Helliwell, who are involved in the UK MNW programme.


Although there has been much criticism of measuring wellbeing for policymaking, the idea has been supported for its possibilities. These are reflected in work to measure cultural value in economic terms. The DCMS has led on the CASE (Culture and Sport Evidence) programme of strategic research in collaboration with Arts Council England, English Heritage and Sport England. It has also hosted an AHRC/ESRC programme on measuring cultural value. Whilst these programmes may have come under scrutiny from the sector, they have made headway in measuring culture in terms that are understood by policymakers. Moreover, the latest Taking Part figures explore wellbeing data for the first time – further testament to the sector’s preparedness for wellbeing measurement. Despite the possibilities of culture’s contribution to the measuring national wellbeing debate, it is still disregarded.


The ‘debate’ has provided an inconvenient truth: that not only are the arts and culture important to the public, but that they indirectly serve the policy aim of increasing wellbeing. That the debate posits the arts and culture as instrumental to wellbeing without requiring  instrumentalisation by policymakers should be recognised as a victory for the arts and culture (even if it represents a new battleground for determining cultural value).


Susan Oman is a Cultural Policy researcher

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