Voyage of discovery
The OECD Better Life Initiative can make a difference to policies, and to people’s lives too, though that also depends on participation.
Five years into the most significant financial, economic and social crisis to confront OECD countries since the creation of the organisation, concern for rising inequalities has entered the mainstream of political discourse. At the same time there is a real demand from citizens, voters and taxpayers for both measures of and answers to their aspirations for well-being, going beyond the material to capture dimensions relating to quality of life and sustainability.
Viewed in this broad context, the OECD’s decision to launch the Better Life Initiative as one of the centre-pieces of its 50th anniversary in 2011 takes on greater relevance as policymakers seek to respond to a growing demand to redefine well-being and conceive and implement policies to deliver it. As measurement is the cornerstone of any such exercise, we need to start by asking ourselves whether we are measuring the right things to capture well-being in the 21st century. Do we continue to put excessive stock into material and individual measures, such as GDP developed decades ago that are increasingly out of synch with today’s world?
The OECD Better Life Initiative has been conceived to place citizens at the heart of the process of finding answers to the fundamental questions that will frame the parameters of the post-crisis landscape. The initiative builds on close to a decade of international reflection on measuring the progress of societies.
It is composed of two principal elements: Your Better Life Index (BLI), an online way for people to visualise well-being in OECD countries according to what is important to them, launched in May 2011, and How’s Life?, a major report issued last October bringing together for the first time internationally comparable measures of well-being in line with recommendations in the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission report.
Your Better Life Index is an interactive online instrument that helps citizens to measure how countries perform according to their own personal priorities. Users are asked to “weigh” 11 topics that contribute to well-being –community, education, environment, governance, health, housing, income, jobs, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance to generate their own Better Life Index. An overall description of the quality of life in each country is also provided, including how it performs across the 20 individual indicators that make up the 11 topics. Freely-accessible OECD reports and other sources of information are also provided to assist those who want to learn more.
Since its launch, the Index has received nearly one million visits from almost every country on the planet and has been referenced internationally as a model for presenting material on measuring well-being. Feedback from users through a demographic survey has enabled the OECD to draw some initial conclusions on what is currently driving well-being.
Public users of the Better Life Index who have agreed to share their results consistently place greatest importance on “life satisfaction”, “education” and “health”, regardless of their country of origin.
There is also little difference between the sexes, suggesting that men do not really come from Mars or women from Venus. While there is not a significant variation between generations, younger people (15-34) put greater emphasis on “work-life balance,” “income” and “jobs,” whereas older people (over 65) prioritise “health” and the “environment.” Overall, “community,” “income” and “governance” rank far lower in relative terms.
The US, France, Canada, Germany and the UK have generated the highest number of users, but the index has received substantial visits and interest from non-OECD countries. It is interesting to note that views about the relative importance of the different factors that make up a good life are broadly similar across countries, suggesting the existence of a global community—users in the Nordic countries have the same top three well-being priorities as those in the global “south”.
The Better Life Index will be widening its coverage further as it enters its second year. The geographical range will be extended to include Brazil and Russia, bringing the total number of countries covered to 36. The index is also widening its language coverage, with a full French version which we hope will be the first of a string of language versions. This will be a critical element for expanding the global user community, exponentially increasing the feedback received through completed indexes.
In fact, each year Your Better Life Index will endeavour to enrich the user’s experience by including more factors important for measuring well-being. In response to user findings, new indicators will be added in 2012 to strengthen the “education”, “jobs”, “environment” and “housing” dimensions. Users will also be able to compile their index taking account of degrees of equality between men and women across the dimensions. Similarly, users will be able to see other inequalities, for example, whether their income level affects how healthy they feel or how likely they are to vote. The capacity of Your Better Life Index to make a difference in how policies are developed depends on participation. With this goal in mind, emphasis has been placed on enhancing the user experience to encourage participation and to make feedback more immediate. Users will now be able to compare themselves directly with others based on location, gender and age. Comments and suggestions are more than welcome. Already, as a result of user feedback, we have added an embed feature which enables journalists, bloggers and other users to capture their BLI and place it directly onto web sites and blogs.
Your Better Life Index provides an innovative way of empowering and educating everyone who cares about building a stronger, cleaner and fairer world. For the public this means being better informed about policies and their effects on well-being. For policymakers, this means a better understanding of citizen priorities in order to shape better policies. For the OECD, this means making recommendations that more accurately reflect people’s concerns. Our challenge is to encourage more public engagement and dialogue in order to make a more meaningful impact on what policies are needed. It is a voyage of discovery and a work in progress.
Durand, Martine (2012), “Progress: From compass to global positioning system”, 2012 OECD Yearbook, Paris
OECD Observer (2011), “Better measures for better lives”, No 284, Q1, Paris
Stiglitz, Joseph (2009), “Progress, what progress?”, OECD Observer No 272, March, Paris.
For more on the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission report, see www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr
©OECD Observer No 290-291, Q1-Q2 2012
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