How RFK’s legacy should allow us to measure progress beyond economics

March 18, 2018

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by Jennifer Wallace, Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust

Each quarter the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures come out, signalling good or bad economic progress. But how many of us actually know what GDP stands for, let alone how the index is constructed? Could we really say whether 2.5% growth would be better for us than 1.5%?

Many people may have the opinion that there was a lack of social progress earlier in the month when the snow brought our productivity to a standstill. But do they consider the widespread community spirit and stories of admirable care and support for each other that it generated?  In our lives, most of us value the quality of our relationships, our health and happiness at least as much as the pound in our pocket. And yet, over half a century, we have allowed GDP to become the most important indicator of social progress.

Today we mark the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s historic speech on the subject at the University of Kansas. Speaking of Gross National Product, the United States’ primary measure of total economic activity at the time, Kennedy said:

‘[t]he gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

Half a century on, the inadequacy of equating progress with production is largely accepted by policymakers. From the global Sustainable Development Goals, to new country-wide commitments to measuring wellbeing in places such as New Zealand,  and the development of wellbeing agendas in individual regions and cities such as Santa Monica in the US, these frameworks not only attempt to measure what we treasure, but they also describe how people want to live their lives – and their hopes for future generations.

However one of the most interesting approaches to measuring what matters is right on our doorstep.  The Scottish Government has been measuring progress against a dashboard of indicators since 2007. Its formal name, the National Performance Framework, often obscures its importance in driving government policy away from a single issue, or economy first solutions, to supporting more joined up and preventative methods of working. Substantial policy shifts in justice and the early years have their roots in this more rounded picture of what it means to be a successful small country. Much can be said about the slow pace, with many indicators stubbornly resistant to change, but the intention and the measurement that supports it is clear.

Measuring the country’s wellbeing is only part of the story. Now that governments like our own are, as Robert F. Kennedy sought, increasingly going beyond economics to measure our prosperity, we need our policymakers to communicate what they mean by progress – to our elected members, civil society organisations, and to us, the general public. The Carnegie UK Trust has been actively involved in research and development on wellbeing in policy for almost a decade, including our work with the OECD which produced guidance on wellbeing frameworks for cities and regions.

Only when wellbeing frameworks are used as a tool to hold governments to account will we, as Kennedy envisioned, demand that the health of our children, the quality of their education, and their opportunities to play, to become part of the narrative of progress. The Scottish Government is due to publish its new framework, with a revised set of National Outcomes and indicators in the summer.

Our hope is that whatever these revised National Outcomes are, they will lessen our preoccupation with GDP and generate more conversations and a deeper understanding about what social progress truly is.

This blog was originally hosted by Scotland on Sunday in Another Voice on 18 March 2018.