Happy talking, by Phil Swann

21 Jul 05
Wellbeing rather than narrow concerns about efficiency looks set to be the next big thing for policy makers. Phil Swann explores the meaning of public value

22 July 2005

Wellbeing – rather than narrow concerns about efficiency – looks set to be the next big thing for policy makers. Phil Swann explores the meaning of public value

The signs are still tentative but it seems that the tone of policy and political debate is changing, as the flurry of post-election positioning subsides.

Concepts such as respect and a new social contract have survived beyond the May 5 election result. At the same time, candidates for the Conservative Party leadership are pushing policy on families up the agenda. And there is a renewed focus on environmental sustainability.

These are all complex issues. They are not amenable to quick fixes, czar-type national leadership or pro forma policies. The sophistication required of the public sector organisations that have a part to play in pursuing them stands in marked contrast to the narrowly focused performance management regimes under which they labour.

The post-Gershon efficiency machine is a blunt instrument. Local government's Comprehensive Performance Assessment regime is rather more finely tuned, but is in essence a process for putting councils into categories that do not fully capture the imagination and bravery required to address the new agendas.

Much heat, but little light, has been generated by debates on the future of these regimes. The brouhaha around the proposed changes to the CPA is a case in point. Far less attention has been given to new thinking that could revolutionise how we conceptualise the role and objectives of public policy and the organisations that design and implement it.

Public value, the subject of a major study led by the Work Foundation, is one strand of thought. The project is being sponsored by, among others, the Home Office, the Metropolitan Police and the NHS Modernisation Agency. The aim is to establish what public value is in the context of tax-funded services in the UK and find ways of measuring it.

Last year the Cabinet Office's Strategy Unit made its own attempt to pin down the notion of public value. It defined it as 'the value created by government through services, laws, regulation and other action'. In a report available on its website, Creating public value, the unit argued that only the public could define what was of value to them, and 'as a general rule, the key things which citizens value tend to fall into three categories: outcomes, services and trust'.

The BBC put public value at the heart of its recent charter renewal document. It pointed to a future in which 'the historic one-way traffic of content from broadcaster to consumer evolves into a true creative dialogue in which the public are not passive audiences, but active, inspired participants'.

In the face of such vaulting ambition it is tempting to ask where making EastEnders essential viewing fits in. But positioning the BBC in the context of the health of our democracy, culture, education and deployment of new technology – rather than around a narrow focus on ratings and targets for the use of independent programme makers – is refreshing.

The BBC document says public value should be the goal for everything the corporation does. 'Devices and the media change, but the audiences of the future will look to the BBC for the same qualities audiences have always demanded from it: trustworthiness, impartiality, fair-mindedness, creativity, excellence,' it says.

As an approach it has the potential to broaden and sharpen our thinking about the purpose of other public organisations. Imagine, for example, how this logic might be applied to local councils: 'Organisational boundaries and the ways in which services are delivered will change, but the citizens of the future will still look to their local council for civic pride, open and accountable decision-making, assistance in emergencies, excellent services and a voice for Barchester.'

Apply the concept to other parts of the public services and it soon becomes clear that, for example, people look to the health service for far more than a response to particular health problems and to schools for much more than good examination results.

Some might argue that public value is a soft option. But that need not be the case. Think about local councils through the prism of public value and the result is a more constructively challenging critique than that provided by the CPA.

Public preference must lie at the heart of public value, but are our local political processes sufficiently effective to shape and reflect those preferences? People clearly value trust, but rebuilding trust in the local council as a key local institution is one of the biggest challenges facing local government. And most councils still have a long way to go in tapping into the views of their service users and citizens and using that intelligence to drive policy and delivery.

The momentum developing around happiness as a dominant driver of policy might help them in that quest. It is currently being generated by Professor Richard Layard, director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.

The notion of happiness as an influence on choices in public policy might amuse those who are sceptical about policy wonkery. But it is not a new idea. Layard is clear that his argument, set out in detail in his recent book, Happiness: Lessons from a new science, is rooted in the nineteenth-century utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham. And he is a serious player – his ideas underpinned Labour's New Deal welfare-to-work programmes.

His proposition is a powerful one. The desire to be happy is a dominant feature of the human condition; hence the lodestar of public policy should be the creation of a society in which people are as happy as possible. Indirect measures of happiness, such as attitude surveys, have existed for some time. And now, says Layard, neuroscience has reached the point where happiness can be measured.

It is striking how the language he uses resonates with recent legislative changes. His call for government departments to be judged on the basis of whether or not they have contributed to an increase in overall wellbeing, for example, chimes with local councils' new power to promote the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their areas.

At first glance, happiness might seem to be a fluffy concept, but the potential impact of priorities being judged against a happiness criterion is enormous. The neglect of mental health, for example, could not continue. Given the importance of work to happiness, the lack of progress in tackling the high numbers of 17- and 18-year-olds who drop out of education or training would also warrant much more attention.

Trade-offs would also become important. Would an extra half percentage point efficiency gain be worth the stress that securing it would bring? If stable communities are important for happiness, what does that mean for housing, planning and economic policies? The quality of family and personal life tops the happiness league, but is a veritable policy minefield.

Vigilance would be needed to ensure that using the impact of policy on the wellbeing of individuals as a driver did not depend on narrow or bigoted assumptions about what constitutes a 'good' family life. The risks and limitations of such an approach are obvious.

To be effective, organisations must be clear about what they are trying to achieve and how. Similarly coherent criteria have a crucial role to play in informing policy decisions.

We live and work in a complex society in which there is a growing recognition of the need to demolish traditional policy silos and develop joined-up solutions to challenging public policy issues.

These developments have major implications for the way in which those organisational objectives and policy criteria are set. The debate about how to do that effectively is only just beginning, but concepts such as public value and wellbeing could well become important strands of an emerging approach.

Phil Swann is director of the Tavistock Institute