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Paul Dolan

Richard Layard

Gus O'Donnell

Liam Delaney

Christian Krekel

Jet Sanders

Celia Blanco-Jimenez

Kate Laffan

Georgios Kavetsos

Laura Kudrna

March 5th, 2021

How a focus on wellbeing can help us make better policy decisions

1 comment | 13 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Paul Dolan

Richard Layard

Gus O'Donnell

Liam Delaney

Christian Krekel

Jet Sanders

Celia Blanco-Jimenez

Kate Laffan

Georgios Kavetsos

Laura Kudrna

March 5th, 2021

How a focus on wellbeing can help us make better policy decisions

1 comment | 13 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Deaths, hospitalisations and cases have been the default metrics for policymakers during the pandemic. Paul Dolan (LSE) and a team of behavioural science experts propose a broader way of measuring policy outcomes that considers life experience as well as life expectancy.

The policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic has relied almost entirely on evidence about virus transmission risks, hospitalisations and mortality. It has been dictated by concerns for lives lost from COVID-19. As most people recognise, this is far too narrow a focus. Other outcomes matter too, such as the effects on livelihoods, and the life chances of children and young adults. COVID is not the last crisis the UK will face. And even in calmer times, we need a better way of analysing the effects of a policy. Ultimately, any policy will affect one or both of people’s main welfare concerns: life expectancy, and life experience.

Life expectancy can be measured through life years lost or gained. Information on life experiences can be provided by assessments of subjective wellbeing (SWB). SWB represents how people evaluate their lives overall, and/or how they feel about their moment-to-moment or daily experiences. It allows us to consider how the health, economic, and social effects of policies affect people’s life experiences. For measures of SWB to be used to evaluate policies that affect life expectancy and life experiences, we need to calculate a single measure, such as wellbeing-adjusted life years (WELLBYs). A single metric allows for the value of all possible uses of scarce resources to be estimated in terms of their relative cost-per-wellbeing adjusted life year.

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Photo: Nenad Stojkovic via a CC BY 2.0 licence

Citizens and policymakers care not only about how many WELLBYs are being generated per pound spent, but also about how they are distributed across people. One of the most important distributional considerations is wellbeing over the lifetime. We care not only about how well, or badly, different groups are doing at any one point in time, but also about their flow of wellbeing from birth to expected time of death. Concerns for future generations should also be considered.

Major policy decisions affect all of us in different ways. The policymaking process should therefore be informed by people with different voices, disciplines, perspectives, and experiences. Diversity has been shown to increase performance in organisational settings. The decisions public officials take can never be completely cleansed of self-interest and bias. In academia, attempts have been made to encourage adversarial collaboration, which explicitly brings together academics with different prior beliefs to work on a research question. In a similar way, so that we are better prepared for future crises, we must start to embed practices in policy-making that actively encourage criticism and critique.

The government should be required to be more transparent about the data it is using to inform its decisions, and from whom it is seeking advice. Part of this transparency aim should be to place any numbers in context. In the case of COVID-19, most national leaders have based all their statements on COVID-19 cases and deaths, ignoring basic comparisons with common illnesses and other causes of death. The mainstream media can play a crucial role here in holding the government to account, and in ensuring that data are presented in context.

As a first step, and especially when seeking to respond to crises in a timely way, the most important impacts of major policy decisions should be set out in a checklist. Checklists serve to draw us back away from situational blindness, whereby we can miss information crucial to a good decision because we are paying undue attention to a limited number of considerations, such as death. A checklist can only get us so far, and so the long-term aim of a single wellbeing metric should help to frame the ways in which we analyse existing data relating to the checklist and collect new evidence. At the very least, it will encourage policymakers to think about the wellbeing impacts of interventions that might not typically be thought of as being expressed in wellbeing units (e.g. educational outcomes).

We propose setting up a scientific wellbeing impacts agency. This body will seek to bring together experts from a range of disciplines who have in-depth knowledge of various data sources across policy areas. Their tasks will be to a) synthesise diverse knowledge by mapping available data onto WELLBYs; and b) highlight where the most important data gaps are, thus informing priority areas for future research and data collection. A separate wellbeing commission should be established comprising different voices, including those from advocacy groups (e.g. those involved in palliative care). The commission will ensure that the ways in which WELLBYs are generated have widespread support.

These two bodies will be ready to respond to future “wicked problems”, which are characterised by radical uncertainty. They can also address ongoing challenges such as how to prepare for a future pandemic, and how best to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They will serve to enhance decision-making in calmer times, too. Whatever shape the post-COVID world takes, the time has arrived for wellbeing over the lifetime to be the unit analysis in policy.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the COVID-19 blog, nor LSE.

About the author

Paul Dolan

Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics.

Richard Layard

Professor Richard Layard is Programme Co-Director at the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance.

Gus O'Donnell

Lord Gus O’Donnell is Chair of Frontier Economics and a Visiting Professor at the LSE.

Liam Delaney

Professor Liam Delaney is the Head of Department for Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE.

Christian Krekel

Christian Krekel is an Assistant Professor in Behavioural Science at LSE.

Jet Sanders

Jet Sanders is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, LSE. She is an experimental psychologist conducting randomised controlled trials in the lab and field to improve health and wellbeing on a population level.

Celia Blanco-Jimenez

Celia Blanco-Jimenez is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, LSE.

Kate Laffan

Kate Laffan is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science (PBS) and a Marie-Curie Fellow at the Geary Institute for Public Policy at University College Dublin. Kate carries out research at the intersection of economics and psychology aimed at producing policy-relevant insights which can help to address environmental challenges and promote human wellbeing.

Georgios Kavetsos

Georgios Kavetsos is an Associate Professor in Behavioural Science in the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London and an ​ Associate at the Centre for Economic Performance, LSE.

Laura Kudrna

Laura Kudrna is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Applied Health Research, University of Birmingham and a a Research Officer on the Happiness and Wellbeing Programme in the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Science at LSE.

Posted In: #LSEThinks | The experience of young people | Welfare and public policy trade-offs

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