25 Jan

How do you measure a nation’s wellbeing?

Passing ground-breaking legislation in 2015 was a fine start on the journey towards better wellbeing for future generations. The challenges of turning that legislation into reality are daunting, however, or can appear so. What guidance should Government offer to the public bodies charged with putting the Act’s principles into practice? How can we judge success, or, as one Welsh Government consultation asked: how do you measure a nation?

Egino submitted responses to the Welsh Government’s consultations on both the Statutory Guidance and the National Well-being Indicators for the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Some of our main points are summarised here.

Consultation: Proposals for National Well-being Indicators to measure the seven well-being goals in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

The indicators for measuring progress towards achieving the Act’s well-being goals, as presented in the consultation paper, fell short on several counts. The main focus should have been on the implications of current information for future trends and future generations, rather than on what the indicators tell us about Wales now.

It would have been more logical to first produce the Future Trends Report, identifying as part of that work what the key variables are for influencing the wellbeing of future generations. The next step would be to select the indicators based on the results of that exercise. Given that this was not the approach adopted, the indicators selected following the recent consultation should be treated as a provisional list, to be adjusted later when the first Future Trends Report has been produced.

The good, the bad and the missing

Some of the indicators set out in the consultation paper were good, others not.
• The proportion of babies born at a healthy weight is a good indicator for its implications for the future. On the other hand, the healthy life expectancy gap, which lags decades behind the reality of the conditions causing it, is a poor indicator.
• Median income would provide much more useful information than the mean – the mean can be boosted by small numbers of people with very high incomes.
• Labour productivity is misleading. If it is to be included, it is better averaged over the entire labour force, not just those in employment (as the current ONS figures are). Sacking the least productive employees will automatically increase average productivity, even though unemployment has risen and total production has fallen.
• Access to services should be measured objectively e.g. average distance to a post office, a bus stop, a library, a green space.
• The objective of A More Equal Wales should be supported by some measure of gender inequality e.g. women’s average pay as a percentage of men’s.
• Ecological footprint is best expressed as four separate indicators – footprint in terms of carbon (indicator 31), water, land, and materials.
• Carbon emissions should be measured on a consumption basis, because emissions from imports contribute just as much to destabilisation of the climate as do emissions from the same goods and services when they are produced within Wales. This issue is particularly important now, following the obligations taken on by the UK in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Beyond our borders

Indicators useful for their future implications would also include indicators of the situation outside Wales where this is likely to impact on Wales e.g. greenhouse gas concentrations in the global atmosphere.

A narrative explanation on how Wales contributes to international obligations is not good enough. It would be useful to also include a quantitative measure of the contribution made by Wales to sustainable development overseas and to mitigation and adaptation in relation to climate change.

Consultation: Statutory Guidance for the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

We reiterated our full support for the aims and provisions of the Act and noted our support for the wording of paragraph 22, which makes it clear that the Act does not simply add to existing obligations on public bodies, but establishes afresh “the primary way in which a public body sets priorities.”

Sustainable financial planning

While Paragraph 30 contains a reminder that financial planning should be included amongst the areas to which the principle of “sustainable development” is to be applied, none of the implications of this are spelled out. These should include setting a low discount rate in cost-benefit analysis of expenditure and investment options (much lower than implied by the Whitehall Treasury Green Book).

What’s a generation?

Paragraph 34 expects public bodies to look at least 10 years ahead, with best practice seen as 25 years. This is inconsistent with the concept of “future generations” – 10 years is clearly far less than a generation. The term “future generations” implies a time period of at least 50 years. Implementation on this basis would be particularly challenging, and so time horizons of for example 10 and 25 years are also useful for planning, but they should not be seen as setting the outer limit of what needs to be considered.

Effective engagement

Section 1.6 on involving people could usefully emphasise that involvement or effective engagement is about much more than consultation mechanisms.

There is very little mention of the role that people and bodies other than public bodies will need to play if the national well-being goals are to be met. In particular, there is no discussion of the relationship that public bodies will need to develop with others. Enabling others to take actions to support long-term well-being is fundamental to the contribution that public bodies can make and something on which they should be held to account.

A Future Trends Report fit for purpose

We are sceptical as to whether, on the basis of the content which appears to be currently envisaged, the Future Trends Report is capable of acting as a sufficiently firm foundation for the major role in decision-making implied by the Draft Guidance. Its design must fully take into account the roles it is expected to play.

We also have doubts about reliance on the notion of “predictions of likely future trends”, as it is often useful to consider significant possibilities which are not actually likely, as well as scenarios setting out possible sequences of events. The Future Trends Report should draw attention to issues of this sort, which will need to be taken into account in risk management.


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