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20 November 2014

Seeking the wellbeing of Northern Ireland

Seeking the wellbeing of Northern Ireland

"Regardless of the starting point – a frustration with the dominant neo-liberal economic theory or a disappointment in the impact of performance measurement on improving public services – both critiques bring you very quickly to the same conclusion: that decisions about public policy would be better informed by the use of a wellbeing dashboard."
Measuring Wellbeing in Northern Ireland Report – Carnegie UK Trust 2013

The idea of moving beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the key index of society's progress to a measure of wellbeing, is not a new concept to the Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland. Back in 2011 in Seeking Peace and Prosperity, our submission to the current Programme for Government, it was one of our key recommendations. Focusing on relationships, healthy identity and living well and looking beyond an economic reductionist approach is not a difficult concept for Christians. Our understanding of wellbeing is ultimately derived from our understanding of God and His Genesis 'good' design for his creation. Wellbeing is deeply rooted in the concept of biblical shalom – peace, wholeness, justice, right relationships between God, people and the land.

The idea is not new to governments or businesses either. From the living wage campaign to flexible working, community development, to health and education we are seeing a helpful shift in focus and language towards wellbeing. The UK Office of National Statistics (ONS) started work on its Measuring National Wellbeing Programme at the beginning of the last Westminster mandate. The UK measures wellbeing by drawing together data on the economy, society and the environment and sustainability. Specific measurements of wellbeing vary, but since the 1970s governments around the world have been looking beyond the failing capitalist paradigm for better measures of progress which link more closely to their citizen's everyday lives and wellbeing.

In 2007 the SNP set the purpose of the Scottish government as: 'to focus Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth'.Progress towards this purpose has been tracked in Scotland by 16 national outcomes – describing the kind of Scotland 'we want to be' – and 61 national indicators. These cover key areas of health, justice, environment, economy and education. This goes beyond holding government accountable through key performance indicators to articulating a broad holistic vision of national prosperity.

In the Republic of Ireland, the Central Statistics Office decided to introduce a subjective wellbeing measure to the national household survey in 2013. This decision reflects an interesting shift in mood in the Republic of Ireland in the wake of national scandals and a collapse of public trust in the economy, political institutions and the established Catholic Church.

Back to Northern Ireland. In the most recent ONS report (2012-13), Northern Ireland had the highest average ratings for life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness among the countries of the UK, with nine or ten out of ten people rating it as very high. This is perhaps surprising given that Northern Ireland finds itself close to the bottom of league table statistics on inequality, child poverty, mental health, gambling and alcoholism according to recent studies by organisations like the Joseph Roundtree Foundation, and Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) in their Breakthrough Northern Ireland report

It is purely speculation, but maybe in spite of these very real issues there is a distinctive community focus on faith and family in Northern Ireland which are both key to wellbeing? Perhaps it's an emerging positive feature of our national psyche in a more hopeful, peaceful Northern Ireland?

A specific Northern Ireland measure of wellbeing could positively shape local policy development. It would not be a replacement for GDP but a complimentary measurement and helpful shift in focus. To be successful, it would need a really broad base of local support across NGOs, faith groups, academia, community groups, government and business. The community emphasis of wellbeing can also provide a helpful counter balance to the sometimes individualistic lens of equality and human rights legislation. On a similar theme, just this month we met with equality officials to propose the idea of relationships proofing for all new policies and legislation in Northern Ireland, giving consideration to their potential impact on families and relationships.

As we've stated before, it's ironic that the Loyalist and Republican traditions both claim to be based on the same principles – civil liberties, religious freedom and democracy. This provides a great common starting point to form a new vision for Northern Ireland. Building on this, and as we approach a new Programme for Government in the years ahead, we're calling on the Executive to adopt a local measurement of wellbeing, the protection of human dignity and the proofing of policies for their impact on relationships as further cornerstones for future policy development.

This week in Northern Ireland, all-party talks continue about the legacy of the past, ongoing divisive issues of flags and parades, and living with a dramatically reduced budget. The urgent need for creative vision, a healthy and stable sense of identity and strong relationships is highlighted. A breadth of indicators, like those in Scotland, could help to broaden our Northern Irish vision. This could be particularly important as we struggle to articulate a new and collective post-conflict narrative for the good of everyone in our society.