Well-being – the most important social return and our challenge for 2012

January 9th, 2012

As a business we have two main areas of work; helping clients to see the wood for the trees – analytical, diagnostic work – and supporting a focus on the positive.   The latter first became a feature for us when we worked with Bernie Brown on young people’s services at Knowsley MBC outside Liverpool.  She was keen to instigate Family Group Conferencing at the time for extended families to find their own solutions to their young people’s ills.  She brought Mike Doolan over from New Zealand, the head of social care who had been inspired by working with Maori families to refocus on ‘kinship care’.  The result there was the Government were quite quickly able to close down children’s homes because – surprise surprise – extended families are so much better able to look after their children than the state (and in these cases their parents).

That was about four years ago, and now there is a movement in this country which we notice shares some of the features of this approach, sometimes called ‘co-production’. We’ve seen it particularly through the work of the new economics foundation (nef) whom we follow closely, but also in the form of Asset Based Community Building which John Ashton, the head of public health in Cumbria showed us.  In our work with Children and Young People focusing on the positive is about looking at positive psychology.  Whilst it sounds like obvious good sense, it’s quite a challenge when services for young people are all about stopping them doing things – less pregnancy, fewer drugs, less anti-social behaviour.

But the challenge for us now is linking up these two areas of our business I mentioned – the diagnostic work – which mostly takes the form of Social Return On Investment (SROI) analyses – and focusing on well-being and the positive – which we believe is not only the best way to help people to find their own successful path through life but is also the most important social return.

SROI practitioners tend to see well-being as a means to an end – a personal resource which helps with success in work or social environments.  And there are challenges with measuring it.  Jayne Stallard Moore, our Ed Psych associate, says happiness is like an illegal substance – once you get used to it, you need more!  It’s also an area where there is a high risk of politicians or public services trying to impose a socially acceptable norm.

And yet Government has tasked the ONS with measuring well-being to offer an alternative to GDP, and Gus O’Donnell, outgoing Cabinet Secretary, has described how the results of the research will go on to influence policy in all areas (have a listen at http://tinyurl.com/76zeo5e ). Nef (again) have published a couple of great documents too, their Sustainable well-being: guide to policy and practice and Measuring our Progress.

So the challenge as I see it is how to link these two worlds.  It comes back to something that we see all the time in our consultancy practice – it’s all very well being able to see the wood for the trees, but how do you then nurture your wood?  The research, the good practice, even the policy is out there – but how do you put it into practice widely, fairly and consistently?

It’s in this particular forest that we will spend 2012 – seeing how we can make sure that well-being is understood effectively as a social impact, and that the people we work with know how to support their clients or customers to make it happen.  No doubt there will be a bit of ‘nudging’ in there too, as behavioural economics influences our work.    I’m now involved in a couple of areas where I hope we can influence this at a policy level as well as through our own work: as a member of the newly formed SROI UK Council, and on the steering group for the Department for Education’s evaluation of the huge Myplace fund.  We’ll let you know how it goes!

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