Turn on the news on any given day and you would be forgiven for thinking that market growth was the answer to all our problems. At a time of economic fragility it is perhaps unsurprising that the minds of policy makers tend to return frequently to the question of kick-starting growth. But the opposite perspective, that the objectives that have dominated economic policy for the last 40 years – maximising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and market efficiency – are not only inadequate goals for society but might even be part of the problem, is becoming increasingly mainstream.
But how can this emerging realisation that we need broader methods of measuring the progress of our societies start to have an impact in shaping politics and policy? It was to tackle this question that the BRAINPOoL project was set up two and a half years ago and some of its recent conclusions seem to be gaining traction:
One problem we encountered frequently in the project was the current disconnect between the Beyond GDP movement and the general public. While there is great demand from parts of civil society for positive social and environmental change, people tend not to think in terms of indicators, and thus the measurement debate has so far often been left to experts. This needs to change. If we are going to deal seriously with the issue of ‘what really matters’, we are going to have to make much better efforts at actually asking people what matters to them. Beyond GDP concepts need to be rooted in processes, goals and targets that have legitimacy. Citizens should be involved in selecting political priorities.
The good news is that there are positive signs of change. A diverse array of people from social scientists and citizens groups to NGOs and psychologists are now actively engaged in the alternative indicators debate. Furthermore, whether ‘what matters’ to the public turns out to be job security, health, quality of life, environmental sustainability, social cohesion or overall well-being, all of these things can now be more accurately measured, providing policymakers with robust options for new policy objectives. As noted in the conclusions of last week’s EESC event ‘Let’s Talk Happiness’, these developments mean Beyond GDP can act as an instrument promoting democratic renewal, enabling citizens to make informed, democratic choices with greater proximity to the policy making process.
A New Story of Progress
A key element to winning public support will be communicating a compelling Beyond GDP narrative that provides an alternative story to the current growth-at-all-costs mantra, showing the real differences that the use of alternative indicators will make to policies and outcomes. To be successful indicators must connect with things that have impact on people’s lives (good jobs, equality, security and happiness) highlighting problems and pointing towards solutions. This beyond GDP narrative needs to be able to win votes if it is to become mainstream, and it needs to explain in a consistent way how the world is. Articulating a more holistic vision of progress which strongly resonates with the public should not prove too problematic, however, as the broad themes of this agenda match the public’s preferences to a far greater degree than growth pure and simple. International surveys consistently support this impression.
The advent of big data, wearable devices and mobile technology are converging to allow the creation of new, more timely Beyond GDP indicators that can give us real-time impressions of health, well-being, environmental and social trends, providing a readily available alternative picture to the regular quarterly economic data. Daily air pollution updates are already available in many cities, while apps that track the happiness levels of wearers throughout the day are providing valuable new insights on the foundations of human well-being.
New Ways of Making Policy
All this innovation does pose challenges for policy however. We found a number of barriers to ‘going beyond GDP’ that relate to the particular difficulties for policy-making of adopting a more holistic, multi-dimensional view of progress. Innovation and experimentation will be needed (for example considering combinations of policies that have not been tried before). This shift will require the ability to manage the greater complexities of the world outside of economic statistics, and without falling back on the standard economic thinking and models. This will not be easy, but is both necessary and possible.
One of the exciting aspects of the BRAINPOoL project’s Final Conference was to hear experienced policy makers from France, the UK, Finland and Italy confirm that the adoption of B-GDP indicators can really change the priorities of political action. Imagine what labour market policy could look like if explicitly driven by the aim of maximising well-being: A “living” minimum wage? Flexible or shorter working week? Generous provision of parental leave? The positive benefits for society resulting from a Beyond GDP shift are becoming abundantly clear.
– Alistair Whitby
To read more about the BRAINPOoL project’s results please see www.brainpoolproject.eu or read our short summary of results and recommendations here.