National wellbeing: the ‘personalisation of the public interest’?

Democratic states want to prove their success to their citizens and one way to do this is to incorporate the feedback from them about their 'wellbeing'. Is personalised government about making citizens happy or pleasing the state?

One of the many buzzwords associated with New Labour’s public service reform was ‘personalisation’. Advocates of personalisation believed that the state needed to find new ways of treating people as individual ‘customers’, in order to keep up with the ethos of the private sector. Sharing data across government was one technological means of achieving this, potentially enabling public service providers to build up a more complete picture of each of their users. This way, services would be tailored around the specific needs and experiences of the citizen, rather than citizens having to tailor their requests and demands to the bureaucratic rules of whichever part of the state they happened to be dealing with.

The Cameron Conservatives have tended to favour a somewhat separate notion of a ‘post-bureaucratic age’, perhaps because it implies less bureaucracy, rather than just nicer bureaucracy. But both concepts express a view of twenty-first century citizens as exerting their consumer rights, holding opinions about what’s best for them, and having a say in how their interaction with government is conducted. There is a belief that citizens need empowering, combined with a view that the state can make this happen – a paradox that is typically glossed over with appeals to the interactive and decentralised properties of the internet.

Strange as it may sound, the arrival of ‘wellbeing’ as a national performance indicator is witnessing this same ethos emerging in the realm of statistics. In the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the OECD, great pains are being taken to ensure that wellbeing measures are not merely authoritative according to the health and economic experts that advise on and develop them, but mesh with individual, lay perceptions of how ‘well’ the nation is considered to ‘be’. What we are witnessing is a move from the personalisation of public services, in which government adapts to the specific qualities of each individual, to the personalisation of the public interest, in which statistical indicators are adaptable to reflect individual moods.  

One intriguing example of this is the OECD’s Better Life Index. This online tool enables users to explore how different OECD nations perform according to eleven different pre-designated components of wellbeing, such as ‘housing’, ‘community’, ‘life satisfaction’ and so on. This is not simply another data set, but includes what the OECD describes as an “interactive tool that allows you to see how countries perform according to the importance you give to each of 11 topics that make for a better life.” Unlike GDP, unemployment or inflation, national wellbeing is partly in the eye of the beholder.

Of course the data is provided by experts, and there is no choice regarding the eleven categories to be played with. But there is a clear commitment to personalisation and even - for the optimists - democratisation of national statistics.

Then take the ONS’s much-heralded plans to measure Britain’s ‘national wellbeing’. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of this programme in November last year, the ONS ran a public consultation and ‘national debate’, to ensure that their definition of ‘wellbeing’ meshed with the intuitions of the public, all the while consulting two specially formed advisory groups (made up of economists, psychologists and statistical experts) on how they considered national wellbeing to be best measured. Jill Matheson, the National Statistician, explained at its launch that the purpose of the national debate was to unearth “good ways of showing figures which people recognise as telling a story which reflects their experiences”. The public consultation focused on questions such as “what matters to you?” and “what do you mean by national wellbeing?”

Once again, experts hover in the background, setting the terms and limits of such a debate, especially when it comes to the intricacies of measurement. But the ONS’s concern is quite evident: that this is a form of performance evaluation that must be sufficiently flexible, as to accommodate the gut reactions of individual members of the public.

As I have argued previously, statistics provide a crucial basis for a modern, national public sphere to function. Without a shared, objective account of who we collectively are, how we collectively are doing and where we collectively are going, politics could descend into a shouting match to rival American talk radio. Writing in the 1950s, Hannah Arendt bemoaned the fact that doxa – opinion -  had been so discredited within Western political philosophy, and later quashed by expertise and economics, as to render politics inert. But even fervent democrats have reason to cling on to 20th century measurement innovations, such as GDP and unemployment rates. The question of the public interest may not be reducible to such statistics, but they provide some objective limits to how that interest can be politically represented.

The dramatic return of macro-economics since 2008, and especially since 2010, means that such 20th century objectivism is far from dead. Geoff Mulgan’s stated hope that we move beyond materialist, monetary forms of national performance evaluation looks some way from being realised. Nevertheless, the turn towards ‘wellbeing’ as a national performance indicator represents a step away from ‘economism’ and ‘objectivism’, towards ‘psychologism’ and ‘subjectivism’ in public life. As Gerry Hassan has argued, this brings with it its own cultural and political risks.

Once experts accept that individuals are authorised to evaluate their own lives, rather than have them evaluated by professionals, it quickly follows that they gain the right to evaluate national performance too. This is not quite the post-modern babble of talk radio and BBC message boards, but nor is it the classically modern pronouncement of hard, professionally-endorsed fact. Feelings and impressions now help to constitute who and how we are as a nation.

As with the personalisation of public services, this ‘personalisation of the public interest’ is driven initially by fear on the part of policy elites. Blairites feared that unless public services caught up with the ethos and techniques of the private sector, that individuals could turn against the public sector altogether. Similarly, the motivation for the OECD’s work, and the Sarkozy-commissioned ‘Stiglitz enquiry’ - , was a fear that individuals no longer believed what ‘official statistics’ were telling them. In particular, the introduction of the Euro in 2002 meant that ‘official’ inflation rates became out of kilter with how individuals felt about their own purchasing power. In this sense, ‘wellbeing’ is a rearguard concession to the media and opinion-formers, who demand the right to describe how society is really doing. 

Where else can this personalisation go? Mathematical statistics began during the Enlightenment as an amateur, non-governmental pursuit, and the decentralisation of computing power only expands possibilities for non-experts. National statistics, meanwhile, have always been developed for civic and political purposes by ‘unofficial’ agencies, as The New Economics Foundation and ‘social indicators movement’ testify. The capacity for an Arendtian civic fight-back against the authority of ‘official’ data is growing; but so are the opportunities for solipsistic views of society, in which my view of what matters is ultimately all that counts for me.

The politics of personalisation is always doubled-edged. When political rhetoric turns towards ‘empowerment’ and giving ‘you’ the service or statistic that reflects your unique feelings, there is always a team of technocrats lurking in the shadows, determining how a choice is offered and how this new ‘power’ can technically be exercised. ‘National wellbeing’ is no less dependent on opaque expert techniques for its construction than GDP is, it’s just that it claims to channel subjective, popular impressions in the process. Like the monochrome X-Factor contestants that are presented to a voting public by a small panel of high-profile judges, the possible constituents of ‘wellbeing’ are carefully limited and endorsed by expert advisors. We should not wish for a modern state denuded of expertise and statisticians altogether. But we should be wary of experts and statisticians when they claim to be in dialogue with each of us.

About the author

William Davies is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick. His weblog is www.potlatch.org.uk.