The case for wellbeing policy

Renee Leon

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 Dr James Gordon from the Australian National University shares the why, what and how of good wellbeing policy, and effective ways to incorporate it in your work today.  

There is a growing realisation amongst governments that economic growth is not working for everyone. Indeed, Australia is currently as wealthy as it has ever been as a country, yet leading indicators of wellbeing, including social cohesion and happiness dimensions, are stagnant, or in some cases, declining. 

However, interest in measuring and improving wellbeing is growing – from Australia’s Wellbeing Framework, to the integration of wellbeing into the budgeting process in New Zealand 

Neglecting wellbeing during the policy design process can lead to the destruction of societal wellbeing. This includes by eroding trust in government or poor health effects, with robodebt being one recent example of a failure to sufficiently incorporate wellbeing.  

Taking a wellbeing approach to policies can help prevent such adverse outcomes and create more holistic approaches to policymaking. 


What is wellbeing for policy 

There are a myriad of ways of thinking about wellbeing. However, most approaches usually focus on a core set of determinants that include measures of health, standards of living, education and skills, and environmental health. 

Likewise, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index emphasises key indicators like purpose in life and safety. They also have a ‘golden triangle of happiness’ which consists of personal relationships, standards of living, and a sense of purpose. 

For policy, an important distinction needs to be made around what level a policy should target. For example, the Australian Government’s Framework consists solely of societal level indicators. 

But most policies target specific groups of individuals or communities. This makes equivalent individual and community wellbeing indicators more appropriate for measuring a policy’s wellbeing impact. 

In this sense, while having a societal-level framework of indicators is fine, doing wellbeing policy mostly starts with measurable individual or community-level indicators that the policy can affect. These in turn lead to marginal increases in overall societal wellbeing. 

Wellbeing is not just about objective wellbeing – hard figures like wealth, income, BMI, or housing status, it also includes subjective wellbeing. This includes how wealthy someone feels, how safe they feel, or how happy they are. These are what people often actually care about and ignoring them risks missing important wellbeing gains that objective indicators don’t measure. 

How to do wellbeing policy 

One effective way of tackling wellbeing is through a four-stage approach. 

First, have a wellbeing purpose. 

Ask yourself: what wellbeing outcomes should, or can, my policy achieve? What approach should I take to achieve it? Who’s my target audience? What do they care about? 

Second, have indicators to guide your approach. 

What purposeful impact do I want to measure? What are the incidental impacts I can’t measure? What objective and subjective indicators do I need? 

Third, have an evaluation strategy. 

How will I know I am having the desired wellbeing impact? Can I use surveys, interviews, or objective data to evaluate my impact? How many people do I need to talk to or collect data from? Where a formal evaluation is impossible, a well-informed theory of change to show how a policy leads to wellbeing could be an option. 

Four, reflect and innovate.  

Take what you have learned and look for where your wellbeing impact is lacking. What unintended (or incidental) wellbeing impact is the policy having? How can the policy be improved to have more purposeful and less incidental impact? 

Overall, be systematic. Know your wellbeing goal, know how to measure it, and have a strategy to do the actual measuring. Learn, adapt, and refine. Know that doing wellbeing well is complicated. 

Where you can apply it 

You might want to consider case studies such as comparing the wellbeing impact between Victoria’s and New South Wales’s approach to tow-away zones. 

You could consider the recent Bondi Junction attack as discussed in this article from the ABC. What would a wellbeing policy to reduce violence against women look like? Who would the target population be? What indicators of wellbeing would you use to measure the program’s success? 

Wellbeing policy can be a powerful means to tackle some of the complex challenges facing our society – as a savvy policymaker, it is important to have in your toolkit.  

Get access to Dr Gordon’s full article on the Australian Journal of Public Administration here.