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Four steps for better wellbeing policy

13 March 2024



Focusing on wellbeing as part of the policy making process is becoming more popular among governments, including Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. It offers an alternative to economic prosperity as the sole objective. However, doing wellbeing policy requires an understanding of what wellbeing represents and how it is measured. It also means rethinking how we develop, implement, and evaluate policy. An article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration reviews the current trends in wellbeing policy and offers practical steps for integrating wellbeing outcomes into policy making.

Wellbeing as a governance imperative

Doing wellbeing policy well starts with it being a measurable goal for government. Interest in understanding the wellbeing impact of policy is growing. The reasons for this are complex, but two key things appear to be happening. This first is a realisation that public policy failures hurt societal wellbeing. Examples include failing to address public health issues like mental health and child wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The second is that more socially inclusive wellbeing indicators are needed to inform policymaking and not just a focus on GDP. This is leading governments to focus more on measuring and reporting wellbeing across a set of indicators. Internationally, the OECD is a leader in this field and has been publishing indicators of wellbeing for various countries since 2010. These indicators were used for the 2022 version of the Australian wellbeing framework. The New Zealand Government has been producing wellbeing budgets since 2019. This approach is unique as it considers the wellbeing purpose of a policy as an investment during the budget bidding process.

Ways of thinking about wellbeing for policy

Academic studies show wellbeing can be measured using a variety of indicators. These often include a small, core set of key determinants such as human health, standards of living, education and skills, and environmental health. Social cohesion can be used as a measure of wellbeing including belonging, participation, and social inclusion. The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index offers a third perspective by emphasising key indicators of individual satisfaction like purpose in life, connection to community, and safety.

There are also subjective and objective measures of wellbeing. Objective wellbeing includes indicators such as income levels, housing status and inequality rates. These are more traditionally targeted by policymakers as they tend to be more measurable. In contrast, subjective measures include how financially comfortable one feels or how satisfied one is with life.

The article considers both objective and subjective measure in its definition of wellbeing policy:

Wellbeing policy represents a policymaking approach that focuses on improving the overall wellbeing of a target population on both subjective and objective measures of wellbeing.

Ways of doing wellbeing policy

There is a need to be purposeful in understanding a policy’s effect on wellbeing rather than assuming it will occur naturally. This starts with understanding the policy’s target population and knowing which wellbeing indicators to target. The Australian government framework offers good advice: where possible, choose indicators that are relevant, complete, measurable, comparable, reliable, and understandable. In effect, ‘measure what matters’ for the policy outcome and the target population.

The article outlines a four-step approach to doing wellbeing policy.

1. Purpose

Understand what the policy intervention can achieve and choose an approach that maximises the potential for improving overall wellbeing in a sustainable way. Know who the target group is, know the areas of wellbeing that can best improve for this group, and seek to take an evidence-based approach to policy to maximise the potential impact.

2. Indicators

Develop indicators to guide the wellbeing policy approach. What incidental impacts might the policy have? What are the purposeful impacts? What subjective and objective indicators of wellbeing exist to help measure the impact, and how will they be measured?

3. Evaluation strategy

Evaluating for wellbeing is more complex than traditional evaluations. Is there a need for pre- and post-intervention surveys, interviews with participants, or objective data for a quantitative approach? Where direct evaluation is impossible, a well-informed theory of change or framework mapping wellbeing indicators might be sufficient.

4. Reflect and innovate

How can the policy the be improved now its wellbeing effect is understood? Although complex, consider doing a ‘social return on investment’ analysis to help make different wellbeing policies comparable and to show efficiencies and value for money from the wellbeing gains.

The bottom line

Wellbeing may be a nebulous concept, but it can be targeted in a systematic and intentional manner. Doing so is the goal for wellbeing policy which should ultimately lead to a happier, healthier, and more prosperous community.

Want to read more:

Doing wellbeing policy: A discussion on public policy making for integrative prosperity – James A. Gordon, Australian Journal of Public Administration, February 2024

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This previous Research Brief also offers a perspective on wellbeing policies:

Published Date: 13 March 2024