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How does the wellbeing agenda impact public sector policy?

Dr Louise Reardon is a Lecturer in Governance and Public Policy at the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) and teaches the Public Management and Government module of our Online Masters of Public Administration.

An interdisciplinary researcher, Dr Reardon’s work spans the fields of political science and public policy, transport and wellbeing. In our most recent interview, Dr Reardon talked us through her thoughts on the rise of the wellbeing agenda and its implications for policy and practice.

What is the wellbeing agenda and why is it important?

Wellbeing within the public sector – sometimes called ‘the happiness agenda’ – can be seen as a novelty, but it is so much more than that; it is fundamental and all about putting people first.

Wellbeing within public administration is about looking at the nuts and bolts of how we do things; using quantitative and qualitive data to create a holistic approach to policy making. It is about bringing people together to identify priorities and ensuring we have the leadership skills to put it into practice.

If wellbeing is done well, it has the potential to influence many areas within the public sector by providing a tool kit to address themes that are being talked about already. For example, instead of services, we want to talk about people and communities; instead of silos, we want joined up working and common outcomes for the authority as a whole. As public service providers we want to build capacity and capabilities for people to help themselves and implement preventative measures instead of treating problems after they occur. A wellbeing lens helps create policies that facilitate these types of changes.

Why is the wellbeing agenda gaining traction now?

We are experiencing a third wave of interest in wellbeing factors which comes from recognition of these factors within the statistical community. We have seen a rise, particularly in the West, in living standards and wage growth. However, we have not seen the same rise in life satisfaction. Traditionally, policy has focused on increasing GDP, income growth and productivity but the statistics show this doesn’t necessarily improve peoples wellbeing. This disconnect between objective measures and peoples happiness is an interesting paradigm which has helped to raise wellbeing up the political agenda.

So, has wellbeing come to the fore because of data?

I think that having statistics to reinforce the importance of wellbeing has given the movement political credibility. We have credible data from the Office of National Statistics, the EU Statistical Authority and OECD that is comparable, robust and can be measured accurately. As soon as the statisticians could put a measure in place, politicians took it on board – if you can put a number on wellbeing it helps it gain traction.

We know the objective things that effect our wellbeing – income, housing, health, education – but the wellbeing agenda is about bringing in how satisfied people feel, how worthwhile, how anxious. It’s credible now for us to look at this whole dashboard of indicators and how they interact to assess wellbeing and inform policy.

How does incorporating wellbeing principles help shape public policy?

From a policy perspective there are different internal and external factors that affect our wellbeing. External conditions are things like work and productivity, income and access to education. Then there are personal resources like health, resilience and optimism that policy can feed into. There is also the importance of ‘good functioning’ which focuses on satisfying our needs.

Transport is a good example of this as it effects people in so many ways. Within transport there are a number of different things that we know influence wellbeing; cycling and walking infrastructure, facilitating access to housing and work, access to green spaces, air quality and mitigating noise all positively affect our external conditions, which in turn effect our feelings and functioning.

Through mindful policy making and a holistic approach we can consider all of these factors and work together with communities to develop policies that put them at the centre – and are more effective as a result.

Does the focus on wellbeing pose any challenges for the public sector?

Departments within government and local government have developed as silos, which means wellbeing, which cuts across multiple areas, doesn’t fit neatly into one institution. As a result, different services need to work together to identify areas where improvements to wellbeing can be made. Everyone recognises wellbeing is important but, each department has their own performance indicators and ROI and unfortunately sometimes wellbeing takes a backseat.

How can we overcome this resistance?

Wellbeing needs to be approached from the bottom up. Like any other policy, it becomes important when the public cares about it. I would find out what your community is concerned about – perhaps they are worried about air quality, access to cash machines or traffic congestion. If you want your wellbeing policy to be a success, go to your policy holders before pitching it to the policy makers. The publics’ concerns may not be on the radar at a strategic level – incorporating wellbeing is about identifying the areas people care about and positioning them as part of the wider agenda.

What skills does a does a public servant need to implement effective wellbeing policy?

Effective wellbeing policy needs to go beyond the superficial and actively address the issues within our communities. To do this, public sector leaders need to be able to co-produce policies and engage with public and stakeholder service users from conceptualisation to implementation. This requires excellent communication skills to ensure we are working with all sectors of society, even those who don’t always actively engage with policy makers. We need strong leaders with the confidence to push changes though.

To implement successful and holistic changes you need to bring all the stakeholders around the table so you can understand all the factors that influence an issue. What are the interconnections across the whole system? That requires leadership and also the ability to bring in the needs of communities – it’s about both data and people.

You also need to understand the headline ways in which your organisation works, as wellbeing polices cut across and influence other sectors. Taking debt as an example – not only is personal debt detrimental to overall wellbeing it also has implications for other public services outside of finance such as mental health and housing.

Critical research and data analysis skills are also key to enable you to understand the rigor and significance of the information available to you and how you will use this to procure and design services that meet the goals of your public.

The University of Birmingham’s Online Masters of Public Administration equips recent graduates and public sector professionals with the skills needed for a successful career within the public sector to deliver social value within an increasingly complex world. If you are interested in returning to study via distance learning, please fill out our request for information form or contact a member of our Admissions Team.