January 25, 2021

Introducing GDWe: an alternative measure of social progress

by Jennifer Wallace, Hannah Ormston & Ben Thurman, Carnegie UK Trust

The pandemic has brought about many changes to our lives, but one of the less remarked upon elements has been the sudden interest in statistics from the population. Many people, ourselves included, tuned in to BBC Radio 4’s More or Less to help work out what an R-number is exactly. Statistics have been consistently used as a communications tool with the public throughout the pandemic (whether people are interested, or not). From cases, death rates to now numbers of vaccinations.

So, it should stand to reason that numbers relating to the pandemic would dominate the official record of parliamentary debates? Not exactly. The ‘R-number’ was mentioned 73 times in Hansard last year. We tried again with a number just as important: ‘excess deaths’ was logged just 60 times. GDP, the most pervasive statistic of our times, was mentioned a staggering 538 times.

Over the past decade, many organisations have sought to tackle the undue political and media focus on Gross Domestic Product but none has managed to take it off its pedestal. This is despite the widespread acceptance that the measure has difficulties as an economic indicator, and the unarguable logic of Robert F Kennedy that an economic measure surely cannot tell us about the quality of our lives or our social progress.

As an independent, endowed foundation, the Carnegie UK is privileged to be able to afford to innovate more than most. So in 2019 we began working on a project that we would come to call Gross Domestic Wellbeing. Our goal, with a spirit of genuine curiosity, was to see whether or not a single statistic could be created that included all aspects of social progress and if so, whether it could capture the public’s imagination. Our conclusion was yes to both questions.

In terms of the statistical task at hand, we had a model from the Canadian Index of Wellbeing that showed how it could be achieved. We had a significant head start as the Office for National Statistics in the UK has produced a dashboard of over 40 wellbeing indicators (approved following consultation with the public) since 2011. This data had to be cleaned and normalised before it could be processed into domain scores and on to a single number (the methodology for which we are forever grateful to the Diffley Partnership).

Having created an index, we were then able to compare how different aspects of wellbeing fared against each other and against the overall ‘GDWe score’ (again using the ONS categories for our domain headings).  Crucially, as a time series, we were able to show overall GDWe growth compared to GDP growth for the same time period (see figure 1). This highlighted how, even before the pandemic, our collective wellbeing was failing to rise at the same rate as GDP, bolstering claims that GDP has ‘decoupled’ from our collective social progress.

This central finding is fundamentally at odds with how we think about generating improvements to our lives in the UK through policy and legislation. If economic growth did not lead to improvements in our lives in the (relatively) good times, what faith should we have that it will help us to navigate our way out of the pandemic or through the climate crisis?

To succeed in building a better future for ourselves and those who come after, we need smarter, more integrated policy making. Policies that seek economic growth with no corresponding social, economic or democratic benefit should be scrapped at the outset. Which is why we are supporting the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill and the Today for Tomorrow Campaign. It is time we all took GDP off the pedestal and replaced it with a more rounded view of the country we live in.