New Zealand well-placed on wellbeing
A Victoria University of Wellington co-hosted conference hears from international experts impressed by the government's pioneering commitment.
New Zealand has the potential to be “a guiding light” for other countries wanting to incorporate wellbeing into public policy, according to international experts at a conference co-hosted by Victoria University of Wellington.
Keynote speakers said the more than 300 delegates and 120-plus papers at the Third International Conference on Wellbeing and Public Policy made it the biggest such event they had attended.
They were overwhelmed by the level of interest and by the breadth of research showcased as the relevance of a wellbeing lens is recognised in more and more fields.
Professor Arthur Grimes, Chair of Wellbeing and Public Policy in the School of Government was on the conference organising committee.
The speakers particularly praised the extent to which the New Zealand government was involved in the conference which was held at Parliament and Victoria Business School and was co-hosted with The Treasury and the International Journal of Wellbeing.
Opening addresses for the three days were given by Minister of Finance Grant Robertson, Minister for Health and Associate Minister of Finance David Clark and Minister for Climate Change, Minister for Statistics and Associate Minister of Finance James Shaw.
Carrie Exton, who leads the Monitoring Wellbeing and Progress Section at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), was “definitely very impressed” by the number of public servants at the conference.
Joining Exton for a panel discussion featuring all keynote speakers, Associate Professor Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, a behavioural and political economist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom who specialises in wellbeing, described the ministers, public servants and researchers at the conference as a “constellation of interests” coming together.
“If this constellation works out, it will be the first time in the world, I think, than an OECD nation pushes all the way through with empirically guided policy-making [on wellbeing],” said De Neve.
New Zealand “is the one that could probably be the guiding light in the years to come and a reference point for the future”, he said.
Wellbeing is at the heart of The Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, which expands traditional economic indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP) to include additional ongoing evaluation of natural, social and human capital, as well as financial and physical capital.
The framework, supported by Indicators Aotearoa New Zealand measurements being developed by Stats NZ, will feed into Budget 2019, which is being called the Wellbeing Budget and is seen as an important step towards embedding wellbeing in New Zealand public policy.
During the panel discussion, chaired by Treasury Secretary and Chief Executive Gabriel Makhlouf, Ed Diener, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Psychology (Emeritus) at the University of Illinois in the United States and a senior adviser to Gallup on wellbeing research, said the scale of the conference demonstrated the distance wellbeing has travelled as a discipline in the four decades he has been involved with it.
“This is amazing what progress I’ve seen. Right here right now. Most of this has happened in the past 10 years or so. It’s just so shocking to me that people are even talking about wellbeing in this way,” said Diener.
Exton played a major role in developing the OECD’s Better Life Initiative and its index of 11 domains (housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety and work-life balance) identified as essential to material living conditions and quality of life.
The Better Life Initiative, with local adaptations, is the basis for The Treasury’s Living Standards Framework. Such adaptations are fundamental to the initiative, says Exton.
“From my perspective, what I’m hearing again and again is, if this is going to lie and if this is going to have long-term durability, that OECD framework is a start but it’s only a start. This has to be adapted for the New Zealand context, it has to be owned by the New Zealand people and it has to be something New Zealanders will ask politicians to care about rather than politicians asking New Zealanders to care about it.
“It’s great top-down commitment as far as I can see right now … But it should not just be people sitting at a table telling New Zealand how wellbeing should be, it should be New Zealand telling the government how wellbeing should be too.
“So that’s a real challenge for this agenda but for me it’s an obvious step and I know how much work you’re already doing to make that happen.”
Martijn Burger, Academic Director of the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation and Assistant Professor of Industrial and Regional Economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, agreed about the importance of bottom-up involvement.
“Otherwise people get the feeling the government is determining what their wellbeing is or how it can be influenced. But just by listening to the people you will also get them supporting these kinds of policies and they also see the value for it,” said Burger.
Exton also emphasised the importance of securing widespread political and organisational buy-in.
“Very often these projects are attached to specific figures and they are often charismatic figures who are championing this work. There is a real risk if you rely on any one person to be pushing this message and this approach that if that one person then leaves public office or public service then it doesn’t necessarily continue to have the same profile,” she said.
“To some extent politics is like this and things go in and things come out. We want to make this not about politics. We want to make this about better policies for better lives.”
Building the infrastructure to support a wellbeing approach was therefore crucial, said Exton.
“That means that if a given champion goes you’re still left with the infrastructure … It doesn’t just fade away as another thing that came and went. And I think there’s some real lessons countries can draw from the New Zealand approach on this, in the sense there is a multipronged effort going on here – through the statistical system, through the public service and at the political level.”
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