From NI to NYC

November 22, 2018

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by Martyn Evans, Chief Executive, Carnegie UK Trust

2018 marks the year of the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The milestone invites questions about how far Northern Ireland has come, where we are now, and what our aspirations are for the future. And, one question which is asked far less frequently, what can others learn from Northern Ireland’s journey from conflict to a commitment to putting wellbeing at the heart of government?

Last month we took key stakeholders from Northern Ireland to New York to provide a place and space to reflect on progress, the current policy and political vacuum, and what the purpose of government should be beyond the impasse. In an international seminar co-hosted by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, representatives from Northern Ireland’s central and local government; political parties; and the third sector relayed their perspectives and experiences of improving wellbeing in Northern Ireland to an audience of American analysts, policymakers and practitioners.

But policy learning should never be just one-way. Which is why, as part of the Trust’s Embedding Wellbeing in Northern Ireland project, our project participants met with those embodying international best practice on a number of crucial stages in the development of a wellbeing framework in North America, such as involving civil society; effective communication with citizens; and using wellbeing data for outcomes-based policy decisions.

And so from Julie Rusk, Chief Civic Wellbeing Officer at the City of Santa Monica, the participants learned about innovative ways to engage with the community. From the Fitbit project, which encourages physical activity, data sharing, and evidence-informed decision making, to facilitating Awkward Family Photos between strangers, the Santa Wellbeing Project provided valuable learning on engaging with citizens beyond the usual places, spaces, and suspects.

With the community engaged, Andrew Chunillal, Chief Executive of the Community Foundations of Canada demonstrated the power of annual reporting on community wellbeing. By addressing issues such as housing, the environment, the arts, and gender equality, reporting on community wellbeing every year can help communities to identify trends; start conversations with local leaders; and differentiate between community perceptions and on the ground problems.

Because as Ginny Sassaman, Co-Founder of Gross National Happiness USA relayed to our participants – data alone is insufficient. We need to frame data effectively for it to be powerful. We need to present it effectively to inform and inspire. And this is where Becky Ofrane, Senior Program Manager at Measure of America provided valuable learning – the need to have the audience at the forefront of plans to communicate wellbeing data. The need to demonstrate data in a highly visual, engaging, and interactive way so that the stark difference in the wellbeing of communities, such as those just six subway stops apart in New York, is both clear and commands policymakers to act.

So while on the surface, New York and Northern Ireland may not appear to have much policy learning to share, a commitment to measuring and improving wellbeing means that they can become unusual friends who can learn from each other. An increasingly international commitment to wellbeing means that there are increasingly pockets of international good practice, and reaching important milestones allows us the opportunity to reflect on our own journeys and offer information and inspiration to those on comparable paths.