September 28, 2016

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By Soo-Jin Kim, Policy Analyst, OECD Regional Development Policy Division

Your zip code matters – but not only to get your mail. It determines your chances of going to a good school, finding a well-paid job, breathing clean air or even living longer. Our day-to-day experience of life is essentially local, and this is precisely where governments and citizens can make a difference.

Two years ago, the OECD developed a Regional Well-Being tool that helps compare 395 OECD regions across 11 aspects that shape people’s life outcomes – ranging from material conditions such as income and housing, to broader aspects of quality of life, such as jobs, health, access to services, environment, education, safety, civic engagement, community, and life satisfaction. Using this webtool, you can see how good (or bad) your region measures up to other places in your own country, or in other countries. In fact, you will discover that life may be just as different within the same country as across different countries. For example, in the US, people in Hawaii live six years longer than those in Mississippi, the same difference in life expectancy as that between the US and Mexico. Sometimes, the difference is even starker within the same country. In Italy, the employment rate varies by 36 percentage points between Firenze and Palermo, even higher than the gap of 32 percentage points among OECD countries. In Turkey, 60% of the workforce has completed secondary education in Ankara, in stark contrast to less than 20% in Northeastern Anatolia. And did you know that life in Northeast England is similar to that in Quebec, Canada, from a well-being standpoint?

Once you realise how much where people live matters for their well-being, it is only natural that public policy should tackle key reforms at the local level. Together with the Regional Well-Being webtool, the OECD report How’s Life in Your Region? established a framework to help policy makers not only capture the expectations of citizens locally, but just as importantly use such indicators to design and implement more effective policies. Building on the enthusiastic feedback that followed, we have decided to partner with Carnegie UK Trust to take this work to the next level and identify practical lessons from the regions that have pioneered this change agenda. We have therefore spoken to people from 16 regions and cities, ranging from Mexico to Australia – including some who participated in the OECD How’s Life in Your Region? project as case studies, but also others who developed their own local well-being frameworks.

This open-minded, straightforward conversation only confirmed that many local authorities are championing a shift in thinking about people’s lives. Their experience echoes a powerful call for Sharpening Our Focus in how we measure progress in our society and take action on it. Some lessons are likely to resonate with many regions and cities around the world who struggle to better respond to their citizens’ needs. Leadership from the top – typically from the mayor, the governor, or local politicians – is instrumental in translating the concept of a regional well-being framework into concrete data collection and informed policy making. At the same time, the regional well-being approach needs to be embedded in the public administration at large if it is to sustain its course independently of political patronage beyond successive election cycles.

And actually, it doesn’t take that much to get started. In today’s dire economic conditions, no need to try to develop a whole new set of well-being data from scratch. Rather, combining existing data into a more coherent, complementary approach could help save time and depict a more accurate picture of people’s life outcomes. Communicating clearly what these data show is also essential to enlist key stakeholders that could contribute to societal change – different layers of government, of course, as well as the private sector and the civil society. In several instances, innovative ways to consult with citizens helped unearth fresh ideas on what could be done to improve quality of life.

Monitoring and promoting well-being where it matters is an iterative process that we are eager to encourage, accompany and strengthen over time. The more people are aware of new ways to think about improving quality of life, the higher the chances to make progress happen and reach everyone’s doorstep.

Join the conversation! Check out here what cities and regions are doing, and tell us about your city or region’s experience in promoting well-being here.


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