Out with the old, in with the bold: six propositions for building back better

July 17, 2020

Share this story


by Sarah Davidson, CEO, Carnegie UK Trust

Those of you who follow the work of the Trust will know that our calls for governments to focus on societal wellbeing aren’t new. We have been working on this for over a decade now, as have many others. But we have never seen so much interest in a different way of thinking about social progress.

Personally and professionally, it feels as though we have all been talking about the things that make life worth living: physical and mental health; connectedness; access to greenspace; a sense of control; job security – as well as concern about the deep and structural inequalities that have been so evident through the COVID crisis.

Governments will need to take all these things into account in designing and planning the recovery; not least because the choices are going to be tougher than ever in a tight public expenditure context. Governments everywhere need a blueprint for recovery in the medium term, and that blueprint needs to put wellbeing at the heart of the recovery and do so from the outset.

We have set out six propositions for putting wellbeing at the heart of the recovery process. These focus on the positive outcomes that we seek through this process of disruption; the new society that we believe has the potential to emerge from the current storm.

We are not naive about the challenges ahead. People are experiencing  pain and suffering now, and many of these problems will become deeper and wider as the crisis extends. Securing a positive new future from where we are now will be challenging, and success is by no means a given. There are many long-standing hurdles to progress, as well as new ones which have been brought about by the crisis.

However, the first step to a new future is to imagine a vision of what it might look like. This is what we hope to contribute, in order to inspire governments and others whose decisions will shape the way ahead.

  1. National wellbeing can be the goal: Governments should no longer put economic growth above all else. We need political will to turn decision making around and embrace a balanced approach that recognises that ultimately social, economic, environmental and democratic progress are interconnected.
  2. The relationship between citizens and the state can be reset: Rebuilding public services after the pandemic is going to be a long journey, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what we have learned about people’s ability to bring their capabilities to the table. The role of the state should more explicitly be to enable people to flourish.
  3. The future can be local (as well as global): A new settlement between central and local is required that adheres to the principle of subsidiarity  (where powers to make decisions should be held at the most immediate, or local, level possible to ensure wellbeing outcomes) At a hyperlocal level, governments and other funders can create the conditions by providing support for collective actions.
  4. Our relationship with work can be remodelled: In the recovery, governments must not only consider the need to protect and create jobs – as vital as this is – but also imagine the types of jobs and labour market that we want to create for the future. Work is important to wellbeing, but fair work – which values purpose; agency; relationships; mental health; diversity; inclusion, and voice – is even better.
  5. We can build a new level of financial resilience: Many of those most severely impacted by COVID-19 and the subsequent economic shock have very limited financial resilience. While we may never face a shock quite like this one again, we will face different challenges. So we urge governments to think seriously about how to learn from the response to the crisis and create a baseline of financial security in the face of an increasingly turbulent global economy and the need for a just transition to a more environmentally friendly future.
  6. Technology can be for all: The crisis has exposed the vital role of digital technology in almost every aspect of life. Governments need to tackle the significant inequalities that currently exist in digital access. This work must go beyond providing devices to ensuring that technology is affordable; that people have the skills and confidence they need to use it effectively; and that the design and deployment of technology for private enterprise or public service enhances rather than diminishes wellbeing.

Eight years ago, we called for a wellbeing movement to strengthen calls for economic growth to be balanced with social and environmental outcomes. We would never have asked for a crisis like this to accelerate the growth of such a movement, but given the experience of the past 4 months, few serious people are suggesting that recovery be built on a quest for quick economic growth at any cost.

At Carnegie UK we have spent much of the last four months listening and reflecting on what we have been hearing from communities; public services; charitable and voluntary organisations; universities, and businesses. Over the next few weeks we will put some more of our emerging thinking into the public domain. We will do this in an open and collaborative way, since no one ‘owns’ this territory. We are all travelling through this storm (albeit in different boats), and we must all be part of the next phase of recovery and renewal. Watch this space.