Understanding Well-being Data

Chapter 2 Knowing well-being: a history of data

Social policy

Just as policy decisions became less fathomable to people, NPM also changed the relationship between people and policy in other ways. Members of the public were increasingly regarded as customers, and compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) was introduced. CCT requires local council services to be tendered out, and the winning contract going to the most ‘efficient’ tender. The political relevance of this Thatcherite evolution lies in the fact that this government aimed to reduce ‘dependency’ on the state and encourage citizens to take responsibility for their own welfare.

A social policy-specific example might be the Right to Buy Scheme in the UK. This saw national government encourage local councils to offer up its social housing ‘stock’ (housing it was responsible for) to buy, for those people living in it. On face value, a policy that enabled more people to own their own home seemed a good one. Over time, people moved from the houses they had bought; consequently, housing that was looked after by the local council became private housing. However, many, many people cannot afford to buy, even rent this new private housing stock. Therefore, the welfare state has to step in to support this new rental market with private landlords and inflated rents for people to rent houses that may have belonged to the public sector 30 years ago, and which are now often left in unhealthy disrepair by private landlords.

In this instance, objective well-being indicators of home ownership, rental prices or homelessness enable researchers, journalists and policy-makers to piece together a retrospectively objective view of whether this policy was efficient and good for people’s quality of life. In short, it was great for some people, but not for more people over time, and contributes to inequalities1. As we will continue to see, just because measuring well-being claims to improve how we monitor progress, and these ideas were born from belief in both redistribution and efficiency, does not mean they will improve welfare or are even value for money. In fact, the issue of value is—in and of itself—also complex and contradictory.

  1. Murie 2015 []