Understanding Well-being Data

Chapter 2 Knowing well-being: a history of data

Audit Culture, value and public management

[T]he ‘fact of audit’ reduces anxiety, or more positively, produces comfort.

(Power 1994, 307)

One of the effects of developing better measures of well-being and human progress is that we are measuring more things. More than this, we are measuring things for more reasons. Some argue that this is just because we can, or a more cynical description might be to ask whether this is just because some people say we can (whether or not we can being still up for debate in some areas of society). Increasing the ways we measure and what we measure has been diagnosed as ‘audit culture’1 and living in ‘the audit society’2. This has been linked to the idea of a ‘Thatcherite revolution’ in UK politics((Although this change in management of the public sector was also seen in the US, Australia and other countries (Hood 1991).))3, which refers to UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s reforms of how the public sector is managed, as well as how the public sector manages society.

Again, we must deviate into the task of defining some of these key terms. The public sector is responsible for public services in the UK, from the emergency services and healthcare, education and social care, to housing and refuse collection. It is, therefore, inextricably linked to delivery of social policy in a way that results in public managers having to ensure ‘a cost effective and friendly service but with the need to defend the involvement of government in the delivery of such a service’4. This process was called ‘new public management’ (NPM)5.

Box 2.2 The Characteristics of New Public Management

NPM and has been summarised as:

  1. the adoption of private sector management practices in the public sector;
  2. an emphasis on efficiency;
  3. a movement away from input controls, rules, and procedures toward output measurement and performance targets;
  4. a preference for private ownership, contestable provision, and contracting out of public services; and
  5. the devolution of management control with improved reporting and monitoring mechanisms. (Hope 2001, 120)

The NPM processes are inspired by the ways that commercial firms used financial auditing to demonstrate efficiency, with the idea that these should be applied to the public sector. NPM replaced existing aspects of accountability, such as quality control, with ‘auditabilty’6. Many analysts of NPM (and it has many critics) point out that what is bizarre about NPM is that it does not matter what the audit practices are, as it is the idea of having them which is their most effective property.

In other words, in appearance, it doesn’t matter which value system (and here I mean moral and political values, rather than numbers) and which kind of valuation tool you use. For example, you might rank items by order of importance or working out the ratio of their value in comparison to other items. It also doesn’t matter whether you are deciding the social value of, say, someone choosing books over cigarettes (as George Orwell did), or saving local libraries open versus building new ‘superlibraries’ as ‘palazzos of human thought’,((In the early 2010s, there was a wave of building ‘super-libraries’ in poorer communities, such as Peckham and Canada Water, as well as major city libraries elsewhere. Birmingham city council’s leader, Mike Whitby, said of its £193 million Library of Birmingham, ‘It will be much more than just a library. Perhaps we should call it a palazzo of human thought’, cited in Jeffries (2010).)) the point is that the technique was used, and so the policy decision can be justified.

Data which enable auditing, therefore, appear to reassure that things are being done correctly, but ‘the audit society is the anxious society’, according to Power7. Power argues that the system is set up so that the only way to deal with this anxiety is in the further commissioning of more auditing. Audit for audit’s sake does not improve things, but ‘audit success or failure is never a public fact’ and the ‘criteria of success are withdrawn from public discourse’8. Think of the recent rise in well-being at work surveys that you may have seen discussed on social media or which sit unanswered in our inboxes. At the time of writing this book, there was not much discussion of how the data these surveys generated had done anything to improve well-being, yet there was much discussion on Twitter (in my bubble, at least) of how they exacerbate ill-being. They can make us feel watched and give us additional administrative tasks in the service of an employer who is compelled to audit well-being.

Consequently, the logic of NPM and its use of data to audit how policy decisions have performed (or how successful they were at achieving their aims efficiently) has trickled into all kinds of management and sizes of company. As we have recently seen, it has also trickled into apps and watches that help us manage ourselves and our own efficiency (which we discuss in greater detail in Chap. 5). The processes of ‘audit culture’ were initially argued to make policy-making more transparent to ‘the public’, but how data are used to make decisions, or monitor the effectiveness of such decisions, is not made clear. Arguably, this has resulted in the mechanisms of policy—and the accountability of politicians, civil servants and their decisions—becoming even more obscure to the general public.

We should remember the point that the first wave of well-being came to an end—in part—as a result of the mistrust of experts in the economic crash of the 1970s9. What is interesting is that the audit culture approach to efficiency which followed this crash has become naturalised as the way that policy is done. It has also become the way our working lives are managed; some of us even audit our efficiency by way of how many steps we walk a day or how many hours we sleep. In audit culture, well-being metrics replace, reinforce and underwrite expertise. We are therefore trusting metrics more than experts, rather than distrusting experts and their metrics, as was the case in the 1970s.

  1. Strathern 2000 []
  2. Power 1994 []
  3. named by Power 1994 []
  4. Halachmi and Bouckaert 1995, 324 []
  5. Hood 1991 []
  6. Power 1994, 302–303 []
  7. 1994, 307 []
  8. Power 1994, 308 []
  9. Bache 2012 []