A Critical Reflection On Evidence-Informed Policy In The National Wellbeing Debate
22nd November 2012
Following Labour’s 1999 White Paper ‘Modernising Government’, evidence-based policy (EBP) became a significant part of governmental approaches to policy-making and practice intervention.
A central focus within evidence-based approaches is an empirical and utilitarian attempt to find the firm high ground within policy-making and it is the task of policy-makers to “map it out and occupy it” (1). In 2000, in the nascent stages of the EBP movement, David Blunkett (2), then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, called for a new relationship between science and government that would end the irrelevance of the social sciences to the policy-making process and would usher social scientists to “tell us what works and why.” In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government, successors to the New Labour administration, invited the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to develop new measures of national wellbeing. British Prime Minister David Cameron was quoted as saying that a wellbeing index “could give us a general picture of whether life is improving” (3) and eventually “lead to government policy that is more focused, not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile.”
The stated aims of the national debate included the delivery of credible measures of subjective wellbeing and of wider national wellbeing to meet policy and public needs. This essay will take a critical stance towards the application of evidence-based policy within the context of the current government’s attempts to formulate a national wellbeing index. It will explore the methods used and knowledges it produces, and their social and political implications. These issues within the social sciences and government are vitally relevant to our understanding of the nature of meaning and knowledge, simultaneously raising questions about the relationships between research and policy, knowledge and politics, and truth and power.
There is a qualified harmony between the methodology and epistemology of evidence-based policy and the wellbeing agenda. Both agendas have chimed with the modernising times of the current and previous administration, providing an interesting contextualisation of the governance and policy agendas of both New Labour and the coalition. At a speech given to the Economic and Social Research Council in 2000, Blunkett claimed that, as a government “we would welcome studies which combine large-scale, quantitative information on effect sizes which allow us to generalise.” This rationale continues to be witnessed within a governmental index in-the-making. Set up by the government to oversee the evidence-collection process, the ONS Measuring National Wellbeing Advisory Forum includes a number of champions for wellbeing science and for its importing into government policy.
Among the leading proponents, and often cited in the literature, is the Wellbeing Programme Director at the London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance, Lord Richard Layard. Informally known as the ‘happiness tsar,’ Layard advised the 1997-2010 Labour government on matters related to wellbeing, and his input remains central under the current administration. Layard has called for the social sciences to help answer the question “what is progress, and how should we measure the wellbeing of a population?” reasoning that “sound measurement will only become possible if social science takes as a prime objective the quantitative study of the determinants of wellbeing” (4).
Echoing the Blunkett speech, these words of a self-confessed Benthamite indicate that Layard’s utilitarianism and quantitative approach is epistemologically, methodologically and politically well-suited to the evidence-based policy model held in high esteem within Whitehall. Informing the debates that will lead to the conceptualisation of the index is academic research drawn from wellbeing science (aka positive psychology), a discipline that seeks to advance the understanding of human strengths. Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (5), generally considered to be the fathers of the positive psychology movement, proposed a new science that “can articulate a vision of the good life that is empirically sound while being understandable and attractive” to both social scientists and policy-makers alike. They describe themselves thus: “We are, unblushingly, scientists first. The work we seek to support and encourage must be nothing less than replicable, cumulative and objective” (6).
Within both positive psychology environs and, more widely, within the rationale of evidence-based policy, there are a number of methodological and epistemological concerns. These are reflected in how subjectivity is theorised, the emphasis on quantification, the lack of contextuality and an underappreciation of values. This is evident in the report from the Office of National Statistics, which asked the UK public (via the Integrated Household Survey from April 2011) to give answers to 4 subjective questions on their wellbeing.
• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
Each was measured on a scale from 0 to 10, ranging from 0 (extremely unhappy) to 10 (extremely happy). Among the findings were health, contact with family and friends, relations with our spouse and partner, job satisfaction, economic security and the environment. Methodologically, this approach can be problematised. The concern with the IHS questionnaire is that self-reported happiness and life satisfaction are unreliable barometers of a person’s wellbeing. Although the 4 subjective questions fit the criterion of being quantitative and generaliseable and permit the ONS to codify and aggregate the data, the picture they have can only be partial and therefore decontextualised. The evidence gained here does not even meet its own empirical criteria for efficacy, failing to reflect the situatedness of knowledge and relations of power rather than discovering answers as to the content of genuine wellbeing. The rigour of the evidence is too questionable to drive policy. This is a modernist re-production of the application of reason to gain control over the world and disguises the inherent dangers in the ways we accumulate and utilise knowledge, and the implications mean that ‘appropriate practice’ becomes a debatable issue. Evidence-based policy and the wellbeing agenda both play into the hands of such pitfalls.
In his critique of evidence-based policy, Parsons (7), in a rhetoric-heavy paper, distinguishes the problems in such modernist/modernising agendas from the project he terms the ‘Lasswellian vision.’ Harold Lasswell (8), in his book The Policy Orientation, argued that policy-making exists in a web of power relations, and is embedded in value contexts, stating that “the task of policy analysis was not to produce ’evidence’ to drive policy but to facilitate the clarification of values and contexts.” The issue of values lay at the heart of the Lasswellian policy sciences movement. It remains no less pertinent an issue today. In the case of EBP, according to Parsons, (and, it appears, the wellbeing agenda), values are like ‘naughty children’, they must be seen and not heard so that EBP can remain steadfast in unveiling “what works rather than what you believe. It is about efficiency, effectiveness and economy in delivery, rather than ethics.” (9). The clear result of this is a shrinking ethical debate, despite its decisive relevance.
Evidence-based policy has emerged within a political context that has emphasised audit, monitoring, performance and regulation in its reforms of the public sector. The wellbeing agenda mirrors this managerialism. This leaves the greater excesses of EBP and the burgeoning wellbeing agenda open to a Foucauldian critique. It is from this theoretical framework that Nikolas Rose (10) has argued that wellbeing and happiness have increasingly been constructed as dependent upon “the production and utilisation of the mental capacities and propensities of individual citizens” (11). In its attempts to make us knowable, the psy-sciences, he argues, (in its present incarnation, positive psychology) have played a significant role in the individualising and objectifying of ‘subjects,’ and this has resulted in particular forms of knowledge of human subjectivity that offer contestable, contextual ‘truths.’ This knowledge is theorised within the wellbeing sciences, collected by the ONS, and presented to government before reaching the social body. Evidence is monitored, measured, managed, aggregated, systematised, audited and disseminated through these mechanisms. An ‘unblushingly scientific’ positive psychology co-exists alongside the managerialism of evidence-based approaches. The dangers of this conceptual marrying of a wellbeing discourse legitimated by the authority of evidence-based policy falls within Rose’s concerns with the work of the psy-disciplines and its contributory role in our construction as governable subjects.
The implications of the current approach towards the formulation of a wellbeing index are important. The discourses around wellbeing are played out in a number of social settings, in education, healthcare, the workplace, in the media, the family. Its discoveries are all around us. Rose describes such phenomena as veridical discourses, forms of positive knowledge or truth expertise that have been essential to the rationalities of government. Analyses of government reveal particular rationalities of politics, of how governing is conducted in time and place, underpinning, as in the case of the National Wellbeing Project, ideological and political aims, and strategic texts which analyse ‘problems’ and unveil ‘solutions’ according to a wealth of statistics that declare a strong alignment to the ‘truth.’ How this evidence is defined, collected and dispersed is an exercise in power that affects all of society. An exercise that leads to a lattice of commonsense assumptions about wellbeing that permeate the social and political body, be it in the training and education of professionals or public, or when filtered through cultural forms, such as the self-help genre or magazine advice columns.
Within human affairs there is a complexity and uncertainty that precludes value-free, decontextualised mechanisation. When sought in this way, academic research is produced and disseminated according to particular specifications of what constitutes ‘knowledge.’ The critical question is how can we learn to deal with such dynamism, how can research evidence and policy–making cope with this flux, without recourse to a blind faith in our capacity to accumulate knowledge, an attitude that can often lead to illusory evidence and dubious practice. Such partial evidence cannot dissolve the conflicts of value we face in an uncertain world. The first step is an acceptance of the difficulties of the social sciences. To begin facing up to this, it is critical to engage with the same forms of contextualised knowledge that evidence-based policy considers ’irrelevant.’
Nonetheless, it is important to be careful here. Overplaying the dangers and pitfalls of evidence-informed approaches toward the wellbeing of a population is to negate the validity of asking the question. Ultimately, it is the purpose of government to affect, to the extent that it is feasible, the social and political conditions, even the wellbeing of a population. Boaz et al (12), call for a portfolio of ways in which evidence can better inform policy and practice by understanding evidence within context and seeking innovation in methods of analysis. The criticisms shared within this paper have to be qualified with the caveat that the accent of EBP has mellowed in recent years, possibly affected by criticism of its aims, a point reflected in the change of terminology over the years from a more realist ‘evidence-based’ toward a more relative ‘evidence-informed’ policy. However, within the wellbeing agenda at least, this mellowing hasn’t evolved into sufficient change in either methodological emphasis or epistemological reasoning.
In this agenda, it is difficult to find anything more than a lip service paid toward a more qualitative, contextualised, value-aware gathering of evidence. This neglect of values and context implicitly involves its own value base of a means-end rationality of efficiency, economy and outcome. This is a dangerous legitimation of particular forms of evidence bases to the exclusion of others. In the wellbeing agenda’s call for quantification, in Layard’s appeal to ‘sound measurement’, we are stuck in a positivistic mindset that excludes the context and value recognition that is required for real policy change. The impetus behind the wellbeing movement continues to ignore the methodological and epistemological issues and serves an ideological, de-politicising function in accumulating its context-free, technical ‘evidence.’
In the search for a greater sensitivity to these issues we enter a whole new question of what are the alternatives to the decontextualised models or indices? The possibility of engaging in an Aristotelian or Habermasian language of practical wisdom or communicative rationality remains unchartered territory in the construction of the wellbeing index. As it stands, this belies a failure to discover a responsible governance that caters to reflexive, nuanced policy and practice with moral-ethical dimensions that keep open the debate of underlying ends and values, to deal with the inevitable ambiguities, and which targets an appropriateness of action in the promotion of social welfare. An important part of any approach (as with the Lasswellian project) is to ensure knowledge is explicitly politicised, to ensure that values are clarified and problems contextualised. To those who insist that the social sciences “tell us what works and why,” such an analysis can be an unpalatable thought. This makes it no less vital an aim. How we find ways to integrate these moral-ethical dimensions is the next question for analysis and elaboration.
Word Count 2,145.
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3. BBC Plan To Measure Happiness ‘Not Woolly’ – Cameron (2010). Source:
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8. Lasswell, H.D. (1951), ‘The Policy Orientation’, in D. Lerner and H.D. Lasswell (eds), The Policy Sciences, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press).
9. Parsons, W. From Muddling Through to Muddling Up – Evidence Based Policy Making and the Modernisation of British Government, Public Policy and Administration, 17, pp. 43-60 (2002: 54).
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11. Rose, N. Governing The Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self, pp.130 (London: Routledge, 1989).
12. Boaz, A., Grayson, L., Levitt, R. & Solesbury, W. Does Evidence-Based Policy Work? Learning from the UK Experience, Evidence and Policy, 4(2), pp. 233-253 (2008).