September 8, 2021

What works for maximising local wellbeing? Lessons from Northern Ireland

By Joanne Smithson, Head of Implementation & Learning, What Works Centre for Wellbeing

It’s been a busy few weeks for our colleagues at Carnegie UK.  First, looking forward: a new brand and fresh strategic direction focused on ‘collective wellbeing’ – what is needed for all citizens to live well together.  Followed this week with a report looking back, sharing the learning from the Trust’s four year programme Embedding Wellbeing in Northern Ireland.  Carnegie UK provided financial and in-kind support to three Community Planning Partnerships to implement wellbeing frameworks and approaches, and through peer-to-peer learning, shared the skills and knowledge produced with the wider network of 11 local authorities with responsibility for leading community planning processes for their respective districts.

As a self-confessed local government wellbeing policy geek – it’s a great read.  Full of richness and nuance; practical hints, tips and tools, as well as far reaching recommendations for the wider wellbeing policy community.

People in Northern Ireland report the highest levels of life satisfaction, worthwhile and happiness in the UK, yet at the same time, levels of post traumatic stress disorder and antidepressant use are some of the highest in the UK. It’s a complex policy environment, unlike any other in the UK.  Reading the report, one of the first things that struck me, was that despite the varied legislative frameworks my local government policy colleagues work in: England’s powers to promote economic, social and environmental wellbeing through sustainable community strategies (2000), Scotland’s Community Empowerment Act (2015), and the Welsh Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015), so many of the report’s ‘lessons learnt’ on shared leadership and co-production could make their way, unaltered, into one of my ‘maximising wellbeing policy’ workshops for other jurisdictions of the UK.

In-depth work with Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council; Derry City and Strabane District Council; and Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council and a repeating theme of the peer-to-peer learning events was the importance of data and evidence for the planning process.

It was acknowledged during the sessions that obtaining good quality monitoring data which demonstrates where wellbeing change has occurred was challenging. One of the report’s strongest recommendations is to move to a point where all statutory partners share data of relevance to the Community Plan with the wider Partnership, including citizens and the community and voluntary sector, to help advance progress towards local wellbeing outcomes.

Reading insight from the team’s 2018/19 study visits to New York and Wales reminded me of heady days when I could travel to councils, and see effective, do-able, affordable wellbeing improving projects, programmes and approaches in action. This approach really resonated with me, and our centre’s mission to build a learning system for wellbeing

The report concludes highlighting the centrality of relationships in effective policy making.  Knowing ‘what works’ is important; but it is only part of the story. It is important to know ‘how it works’ and most importantly ‘how to use and implement what we know works’.  For Local Authority policy makers, relationships all need nurturing, whether they are with peers, elected officials, between local government officers and community groups and citizens or  between tiers of government. As these relationships are tested, they are strengthened.

So, this week, if you can, make space to read this report.  Reflect and learn from Northern Ireland’s Community Planning Partnerships, so together we can shape our local decision making structures and processes to improve quality of life, maximise wellbeing and reduce inequality.