What would a wellbeing budget look like? Hint: Not like New Zealand’s

Herewith a podcast interview of me setting out my case that the New Zealand Wellbeing Budget has a relationship to wellbeing which corresponds to a Pirates Ball’s relationship to pirates. It’s ‘themed‘ as promoting wellbeing rather than being thoughtfully crafted to do so. As usual, the transcript below the fold. It began as a machine produced transcription of the interview, but because it wasn’t long, I have intervened throughout to improve comprehensibility.

Leon Gettler: Nicholas how would you define Jacinda Ardern’s Well-being Budget and what are the key issues there?

NG: Well, Jacinda Ardern got a lot of publicity and a lot of goodwill around the world actually for saying that her budget was a well-being budget that it that it’s important to not just target economic growth, but also the well-being of New Zealanders and I couldn’t agree more.

The only problem is that the way I describe the well-being budget in New Zealand is that it is a, It’s a budget that has been themed well-being budget in exactly the same way that you might if you are holding a ball have it have a theme of pirates or ancient Rome or something like that.

So the whole way that the New Zealanders have gone about constructing the budget is that the government announced five themes. Some of those themes sound they’re supposed to make you think of well-being some of them do. One of them is child well-being. Another one is innovation. Well, let’s kind of might have something to do with well-being about not.

And what is missing is the idea that if we’re going to improve well-being then we need to have information not just about levels of well-being and the New Zealand Treasury have been building that information for many years now – but we need to not just be able to ask what is the level of well-being of Maori in Christchurch?

We need that system to also tell us what are the most prospective ways of improving that well-being. And the Well-being Budget and all of the well-being apparatus that has been built – extraordinarily – focuses on knowing about well-being but not the know-how of how to improve well-being.

Leon Gettler: Well the issue then is how can the government make it effective. You would surely have to make it effective by measuring it’s outcomes.

NG; Yes, and they do measure. But here so I distinguish between knowing that and knowing how and knowing for. So, they’ve been much more conscientious than Australian officials in measuring well-being. But to measure the well-being as I said of say Maori in Christchurch or anywhere else or of young children, there are various methodologies for trying to do that. That’s an interesting thing to do but ultimately we’re not trying to know people’s well-being. The knowing is for something.

The knowing is to improve well-being. So if I was designing a well-being budget what I’d be doing if I was trying to shift the great ocean liner of policy towards lifting well-being, I wouldn’t do this immediately but after a number of years I would want every program that governments run, every community activity within reason to be thinking about well-being trying to measure well-being but not just trying to measure it but to do so in order to improve it, by doing experiments and noticing what’s happening trying to understand what things that we doing now that is  lifting well-being, what things that we doing now that don’t lift well-being, how could improve the things that we’re doing.

Think of rib-medial teaching in school just as an example. Is it supporting well-being? Could it do so if we did it differently. Would it support well-being more? These are all the questions that that systems need to start asking if this knowing what is actually knowing for improving well-being.

Leon Gettler: Well surely you would have to build some certain accountability.

Nicholas Gruen: Interesting. I’m not sure. I mean the answer is sort of yes but the accountability is to whom? I think you can imagine that if there is an elaborate chain of accountability all the way to the top of the bureaucracy then guess what? Bureaucracies end up having interests in mucking about without with that accountability – in not being very candid about what they know. But accountability to the community, let’s say there’s a community, you know, a community sporting activity and we find that certain things are consistent with promoting well-being in families and among kids and other things are not consistent with that? So we can we can be thinking about accountability to local communities.

And a little slogan of mine is self-accountability. And what I mean by that is that most remedial teachers are not asking themselves these questions about well-being particularly. And most of them actually want to do a good job. So what we need to do is we need to be very intentional about this agenda. We need to say “this is something we’re serious about and we want to do and anyone who wants to do what they’re doing only do it better with a view to promoting well-being more we want to help them”. We want to help them gain the insight into their own practice, and track their own practice, and measure their own practice so that they can objectively say, “We’re doing this better than we did last month and we think we might be able to do it better again next month”.

Leon Gettler: But I was thinking of accountability for government.

NG: So if you have this sort of accountability where people telling the truth (and you may want some checks for that), of course, if you’re trying to be accountable. You’re trying to be honest with yourself. I’ve argued for a mechanism which I call the Evaluator General. This means that the monitoring and evaluation of a program is independent of delivery and is more public than at present.

In other words, you have more public reporting but what your trying to do is you’re trying to generate information at a fine level of granularity in the community about what kinds of things are working and then you report on it and if you do that then the community when they see it will say “That looks good. We want that we want more of this”.

Now what is very likely to happen with the well-being agenda we have is that in about four or five years time they’ll be a new nice word that comes along. I don’t know whether you remember this but about 10 years ago five years ago, people would talk about resilience. We’re going to be more resilient. It’s a nice sounding word, but delivering it never gets down to the weeds. And so it’s good politics. Everyone kind of does this in good faith but they don’t actually change anything much and then we move on to another nice agenda.

If we did what I’m suggesting, I think we’d not only have a well-being agenda, we would build it into the institutional fabric of government and community lives and we’d be much better for it.

Leon Gettler: But the bottom line is we’d need something like an Evaluator General or an Auditor General?

Nicholas Gruen: Yes, I prefer to say that we need to that that a critical question is we need to be honest with ourselves and that’s a tricky thing to do the famous Nobel Prize-winning physicists. Richard Feynman said “in science the first principle is you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”.

So what I’d like to do is I’d like to get all the NGOs out there, all the teachers. I’d like to get them excited about objectively measuring their performance not for the boss but for themselves and once you do that and once you’ve developed something which has that integrity to the people doing the work on the ground and then travels further up then you’re starting to get a genuine system of accountability, which is a candid system of accountability not a system of what I call accountability theatre.

And it may surprise listeners to know that that is essentially how Toyota quadrupled productivity labour productivity in automotive manufacturing they brought accountability down to the self-accountability of teams on the production line gave them literally ten times as much training in understanding what they were doing in understanding their digital machine tools and gave them the autonomy to improve their work.

I’m trying to build a mechanism of social policy that is analogous to that. And it’s very different to most people’s idea of accountability, which is that you have some great figure in the sky imposing accountability on all the little people down below and forcing them to be dishonest with you in the end because everybody’s trying to justify their job

Leon Gettler: Well Nicholas Gruen those are very very interesting concepts and let’s see whether any government will ever do anything like that, but thank you very much for your insights.

Nicholas Gruen: Governments can do it at very local levels. A school could do it. It can be done at any granular level and I suspect that’s where it will need to start


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7 Responses to What would a wellbeing budget look like? Hint: Not like New Zealand’s

  1. Nicholas
    What is, rib-medial teaching ?

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Ribs can go off the rails just like any other part of the body – or the universe for that matter. That’s why we have spare ribs, but if there aren’t any, then that’s where rib-medial teaching comes in.

  3. paul frijters says:

    Hi Nick,

    good stuff, yo know I agree with much of this.
    One thing worth wondering about is diversity of goals. Take teachers in a school. One teacher may pride herself on being able to get the kids to do well in exams. Another in passing on his passion for history. Another in picking up from subtle clues whether kids have a problem at home. Yet another in pastoral care. All are conscientious and doing ‘a good job’ in the wider eyes of their society. But none of the measure things in a way others could verify.
    Would measurement then really help or hinder? At Toyota it was clear what the inputs and outputs were, but in a school the output is not really knowable for decades (how great the lives of the kids were and those they affected) and the portion attributable to any teacher or school is also tough.
    Would you thus really want the history teacher to start measuring the degree of passion in history in his pupils? Would you really want another to start measuring how many kids have been identified with problems at home (which is going to be higher for the teacher picking them up than for those ignoring them)? Etc.
    I can see how schools as a whole can and perhaps should measure some aspects and take pride in their own ability to improve those aspects. Exams have always been in that mix, but there is personal wellbeing, physical health, and a few other ‘generic’ ones. But you also want those thousands of subtle small goals that make a rounded package of offerings in a school. Even just for self-evaluation I am not sure one do that meaningfully.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Paul,

      Good questions. In a sense you’ve caught me out, because I basically agree with you that a diversity of goals is good – and I don’t want to reduce all teachers to a singular goal. You could argue that I am trying to ‘triangulate’ between the system’s mania for measuring something and trying to find constructive ways of doing that. I think if we leave it up to the people at the top, accountability theatre will take over – which is a kind of parody of accountability in which ‘talking points’ are generated but the wrong things are measured – often also in the wrong way.

      But I think there is some benefit in saying to all those teachers who are trying to do different things – it would be good if you reflected on what you’re trying to achieve, and varied your practice to test what works and what doesn’t and we’d like to give you some help doing so. You’ll get some expertise in how to do this, and some independence – so that as you do this, it will be designed to be helpful to you and also to be available to others.

      It certainly doesn’t have to be one dimensional. But in a sense the New Zealand Wellbeing Budget poses as being one dimensional (to balance the other one dimension which is maximising GDP so the story goes). If that’s the case, it should be done seriously and transparently and I think the kind of mechanism I’m suggesting can make doing it much more evidence-based.

      There’s also the argument that simple, lightweight measurement of wellbeing along the way – such as that endorsed by StateOfLife – might well be a useful overall metric to lay over the top of lots of programs to give them some insights as to the wellbeing impacts of what they’re doing and as a kind of ongoing health-check. If scores dipped at some point, or didn’t rise when you seemed to be achieving your other goals, you’d want to investigate why.

  4. ianl says:

    “Well-being”; “social outcomes” …

    All arm-waving, no objective testable definitions.

    Not surprised.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    They are definable and measurable. Like all other definitions and measurements, they’re not perfect and there are certainly some good arguments that they’re silly. There are also good arguments that they’re not. You put the term “social outcomes” in quotes, but it doesn’t appear above.

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