Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Cost of Wellbeing?

I'm interested by a recent report from Family Investments [here] that tells me that the best place in England to bring up children is the village of Winkleigh in Devon. Interested not because of the prospect of a mass-migration to Devon, but because it's a classic example of really bad research.

The report uses a points-scoring system to evaluate a range of 'wellbeing' factors, including education, crime, property prices, birth rate (so the kids will have friends) and amenities. The principle here is sound enough: develop a common currency to compare very different attributes, some of which may be intangible. Social Return on Investment (SROI) does this by using financial proxies to assess how much a particular service or course of action might be worth to its stakeholders. But the currency doesn't have to be money; it could be points, smiley faces or whatever you choose to make it provided you can say what the 'exchange rate' is.

Problems start with getting the factors and this exchange rate right. What would be the trade-off rate between better local amenities and a higher crime rate for example? How much weight should we give to clean air and a healthy environment compared with higher property prices?

In practice, people make their own decisions on this often enough. Should we move to a more expensive area to get our children into a better school? Should we pay for private healthcare rather than wait for the NHS? Yes, we can put a value on these questions, (and many studies have done) by taking a national average. But in practice these decisions are personal ones, because we're all individuals not a collection of averages.

So it's nice to learn that salaries in Winkleigh are some 50% above the national average - but only if you're earning one of those salaries, not if you're contemplating moving without a job! And if your favourite leisure location happens to be the Lake District then you'd be a long way away.

So whilst this report may be curious reading, it's spurious research; basically just a PR exercise. For any wellbeing research to be meaningful it has to have a particular purpose or client group in mind. Either:

(a) policy-making at local or national level, where some kind of average might be relevant, or

(b) an individual or specific group who could benefit from a particular initiative or changed situation

Good evaluation, particularly where it touches on intangibles such as wellbeing, must have a clear purpose and identify practical benefits that a target audience can do something about. The Family Investment report fails this basic test.

Check my web site at www.real-improvement.com for more information and ideas.

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