In A handbook for developing welfare policies, Paul Frijter and Christian Krekel propose a new guide to well-being-oriented public policies, focusing on the proposal to replace GDP with well-being as the key indicator to assess societal progress. With the book thoroughly exploring the theoretical and methodological assumptions and implications of the wellness approach, Paulo Anciaes commends this timely work to practitioners at all levels of government.
A handbook for developing welfare policies. Paul Frijters and Christian Krekel. Oxford University Press. 2021.
Well-being is how people feel happy or satisfied with their lives. Achieving well-being is the goal of most individuals, so it is fair to argue that the primary goal of governments should also be to improve people’s well-being. This idea has been around for 300 years but has gained momentum in this century. A handbook for developing welfare policies is the latest in a series of recent handbooks on well-being-focused public policy (e.g., Hugh Barton et al, 2015 ; Matthew D. Adler and Marc Fleurbaey, 2016; and Laura Musikanski et al., 2019). The new work by Paul Frijters and Christian Krekel is similar in scope to these other books, but pays more attention to practical issues in implementing wellness approaches.
The authors argue that now is the time to develop well-being policies because it is now easier to measure well-being directly, due to the availability of large data sets, advances in experimental techniques and knowledge. accumulated from 170,000 studies on the determinants of well-being (4). The main proposition of this book is that well-being could replace gross domestic product (GDP) as the key indicator for assessing societal progress. This is not a far-fetched idea: there are concrete examples of this type of approach. In fact, one of the few things many people know about Bhutan is that in 2006, “Gross National Happiness” was enshrined in the country’s constitution as a primary goal of the state.
A move towards measures of well-being, as this book recommends, would influence policy selection, including the allocation of resources (which should go to projects that bring more well-being per unit cost). Well-being indicators would support both the assessment and evaluation of public policies: in other words, they would be useful both before and after the implementation of policies. The proposed method equates well-being with life satisfaction, measured in WELLBY (well-being adjusted life years), a unit of life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10 for a person for one year. The advantage of this approach is that it uses a single indicator, which is simpler than composite measures (such as the United Nations Human Development Index or national indices of happiness and quality of life) which require a weighting system to combine the components.
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A handbook for developing welfare policies is divided into five fairly long chapters averaging 80 pages each, roughly following the topics laid out in the book’s subtitle – History, Theory, Measurement, Implementation, and Examples – but with many overlaps and repetitions.
The first chapter situates the concept of well-being in its historical, philosophical, political and governance context. The authors draw interesting connections to justify the contemporary relevance of well-being. For example, they note that many people now make decisions (like buying something, visiting places, etc.) based on the average satisfaction ratings of others, usually provided online. In the same vein, public policies could be based on their overall impact on the life satisfaction of individuals. On the negative side, this chapter also presents an overlong digression on how policies are formulated and budgets are allocated in the UK, which has not been well integrated into the main discussion on wellbeing and may be less relevant to non-UK readers.
The second chapter examines different ways of measuring well-being and reviews the factors that have been shown to influence it. The material is not presented in the same way as typical literature reviews in academic articles, but rather to illustrate specific points raised by the authors. For example, measures of well-being are examined in terms of their assumptions and the practical issues of their application outside of academic study. Factors affecting well-being are examined in relation to their implications for public policy and the formation of checklists in policy formulation.
Chapter three presents a method for assessing and evaluating policies: the cost-effectiveness of well-being. This involves comparing changes in WELLBYs with the cost of policies. The method is first described intuitively, then using mathematics, so readers can understand it without looking at the equations. Again, the hypotheses are explored in detail and several applications are presented.
Chapter four compares the cost-effectiveness approach to well-being with more established approaches (namely, cost-benefit analysis and multi-criteria analysis). The authors argue that while well-being could be incorporated into cost-benefit analyzes (by converting WELLBYs into monetary values), the cost-effectiveness approach to well-being requires different assumptions and ways of thinking (eg. example, it does not assume that individuals are fully rational and aware of everything that affects their well-being). In explaining these differences, the chapter becomes a bit abstract. The second part of the chapter is less heavy, reviewing several well-being assessment frameworks in use, with an interesting discussion of the case of Bhutan.
Finally, chapter five describes seven case studies of the application of welfare methods in the assessment or evaluation of policies. Only one case study is not from the UK: a global-level app comparing two policy responses to COVID-19 (namely, lockdowns versus “business as usual”). The book then ends abruptly at the end of this chapter, without general conclusions.
The main strength of this book is that it comprehensively explores the theoretical and methodological assumptions and implications of the well-being approach. However, I was unsure how this approach would take into account aspects that also challenge usual approaches such as cost-benefit analysis. These include, for example, altruism, non-use values (e.g. valuing the existence of an environmental resource without the intention of using it) and the well-being of future human generations and others. species.
The conclusions at the end of most chapters revolve around a practical aspect: the idea that to integrate well-being into policy, governments need to know how each policy affects the well-being of the people concerned. The authors argue that state bureaucracies should adopt a self-learning approach, based on previously collected data and previously defined methods, to collect more data or to apply existing data. This seems a bit general, and I don’t know how this applies to governments with tight budgets or developing countries.
The book makes heavy use of examples from the UK, which may make it less appealing to readers from other countries that have different political and governance structures. That said, the book is timely in the UK context and aligns with the latest version of official guidance on policy evaluation (“The Green Book”), the activities of the What Works Center for Wellbeing and projects such as the Measuring National Wellbeing Initiative by the Office for National Statistics. A handbook for developing welfare policies is especially recommended for practitioners at all levels of government.
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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the Examiner
Paulo Anciaes – University College of London
Paulo Anciaes is a senior researcher at the Center for Transport Studies at UCL (University College London). He is interested in the social, environmental, health and well-being aspects of transport and urban planning. Read more about Paulo’s work in his UCL profile: https://iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris/browse/profile?upi=PRANC25.