Researchers to grade government’s impact on national wellbeing

New research initiative will measure policymakers’ success by net happiness, not GDP

The government has announced the launch of a new research initiative that will assess how policy impacts the nation’s happiness.

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing – part of the What Works Network, established last year to improve public services – will commission research into the impact of different services on the British public’s wellbeing.

It’s hoped that the centre will help policymakers assess whether government initiatives, from crime-cutting programmes to the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, are likely to increase or diminish the happiness of those affected.

The project, which has secured £3.5m to fund its operations for the first three years, will be launched by spring 2015. It will initially be led by former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell.

O’Donnell told reporters that the government had long tended to use increasing GDP as an indicator of the country’s success, but that economic metrics didn’t necessarily correspond to increases in people’s general happiness.

The Office of National Statistics recently upgraded its assessment of the UK’s GDP by including the economic impact of illegal drugs and prostitution, Lord O’Donnell said. “But they don’t measure things like volunteering which we know have a tremendously positive impact on wellbeing,” he added.

“So you could have a society where everyone gave up volunteering and took up crack dealing and prostitution and that society would have a much higher GDP growth rate. That’s crazy,” he said.

Professor Kevin Fenton, executive director of health and wellbeing at Public Health England, said in a statement that the research centre would “lead to better outcomes for health in communities, workplaces and more widely.”

He added: “We are keen to see the evidence of what works for wellbeing much more effectively disseminated and adopted across the country.”