Measuring well-being and sustainable development: Sustainable Development Indicators - Environmental Audit Committee Contents

2  The relationship between the well-being measures and the Sustainable Development Indicators


11. The SDIs consultation document identified the separate development of well-being measures as one of the main reasons for streamlining the SDIs themselves, and for drawing a distinction between a 'current' and an 'inter-generational' view of well-being:

[The development of well-being measures] gives us the chance to look afresh at the SDIs, casting them as indicators of 'inter-generational well-being' which will complement and sit alongside the national well-being measures under a banner of 'Measuring Progress'. ... This approach is also advocated in the ['Sarkozy Commission' report] which states that: 'The assessment of sustainability is complementary to the question of current well-being or economic performance ...'.[19]

12. A comparison of the SDIs and the Measuring National Well-being measures shows that in some areas there is much overlap, with measures addressing very similar matters. New Economics Foundation noted that "of the 12 proposed headline SDIs, five are covered by an identical or very similar measure in the proposed ONS National Well-being domains and measures (economic prosperity, unemployment, knowledge and skills, greenhouse gas emissions)".[20]

13. The consultation document acknowledged that "the indicator set proposed is not a 'balanced' set with equal numbers of indicators covering the economic, society and environment domains". There were 12 under 'Economy', 11 under 'Society' and 14 under 'Environment'. There was a smaller number of indicators under the Society domain because "issues relating to society will be strongly represented in National Well-being". Conversely there were more Environmental indicators "because the environmental pillar is most strongly inter-generational". "The inextricable links between well-being and sustainable development may result in some indicators sitting in both the National Well-being and SDI sets."[21] Nigel Atkinson explained:

[SDIs] are intended to provide a high-level summary of progress across the three pillars of sustainable development: the economic, the environmental and the social, with a particular focus on factors affecting long-term and intergenerational progress. ... [Well-being measures] are focused primarily on current well-being and are significantly weighted towards social measures of well-being, so things such as relationship, health, community and so on. However, I think there is recognition in the well-being set that the economy and the environment have the potential to impact on current well-being. For that reason, there are a small number of environmental indicators in the well-being set, and some economic ones as well. Also, I think there is recognition that concern about the future can also impact on current well-being, so there are some forward looking measures as well. Inevitably there is a degree of overlap ... .[22]

14. There was no plan, Mr Atkinson told us, for merging the two initiatives at least in the short term:

... the national well-being framework was not developed for the purpose of monitoring sustainable development, and the sustainable development framework does not capture the level of detail that reflects what citizens have been saying about what affects their well-being. It would be practically difficult—I doubt it could be done—to bring the two together and continue to serve the two purposes for which they have been defined. For example, if the Sustainable Development framework were to incorporate the well-being measures, there is a risk it would skew that framework too far to the social, perhaps too far to the present day relative to the future. It would also make one of our key objectives in this latest version more difficult, which is to try and streamline the indicator set.[23]

Glenn Everett of ONS, in a similar vein, told us:

... it may be sensible to keep them apart at times. To me it is too early to say one way or the other. I would say reviewing it is something we can do in a couple of years' time, to see how it does properly overlap.[24]

The use of the measures

15. Our witnesses were divided on how important it was to have a combined indicator framework . The SDIs consultation document identified two main uses for the Indicators:

The intention is that the proposed SDIs will provide, for Ministers across Government, Parliament and the public, high level transparent measures of whether the UK is developing on a sustainable path. The SDIs should also support our evidence base for policy development across Government.

16. The current SDIs had been "widely used"; in education, business, the third-sector and local authorities.[25] In central government, our Defra witnesses told us, the focus was on policy making:

We see the value of [the SDIs] being potentially to encourage the right sort of discussion, at the stage at which polices are being developed, about what sort of impacts one might want to be mindful of when designing policy ... .[26]

17. New Economics Foundation considered that it might be conceptually coherent to distinguish between current and inter-generational views of well-being and sustainability, but:

it is not meaningful in policy terms to separate the assessment of these two issues: they must be treated as a whole. This is implied by the proposed ONS Well-being measures which include, for example, greenhouse gas emissions. A high volume of greenhouse gas could, in many ways, be seen as an indicator of high current well-being (as a proxy for high consumption). But this, of course, is not its intended interpretation in the ONS measures. Responses to the ONS's National Debate on Measuring National Well-being revealed that people believe that as an integral part of the attempt to assess the current state of national progress, we must assess whether our current activities threaten our future well-being. Similarly, policy which was guided only by a concern for the sustainable use of resources—to continue the example, by aiming to reduce to an absolute minimum greenhouse gas emissions, with no regard for the current well-being impacts—is not a realistic policy option. Hence we believe that setting up two parallel sets of government indicators covering a very similar range of issues is likely to be damaging and counterproductive to the aim of ensuring that the indicators successfully guide policy action.[27]

18. WWF wanted better integration of the two frameworks. While the ONS work depicts current well-being and the SDIs represent inter-generational well-being, that distinction would be lost if the results from the two frameworks were not presented together, "so that trade-offs and synergies can be assessed; at present there is a risk that current well-being will be prioritised ...".[28] Others too wanted a joined together single framework.[29] RSPB said that they were "concerned that these arrangements will lead to confusion amongst policy-makers and the wider public in particular, as the difference between current well-being and long term inter-generational well-being is unclear".[30]

19. There were however practical challenges for using the SDIs for policy-making. In response to our May 2011 report on embedding sustainable development, Defra told us:

It is unlikely that [the Sustainable Development Indicators] alone will be sufficient to identify how policies should be changed and whether policies are truly being successful. We believe that beneath the headline and supporting set of indicators, we will need to work with departments to identify other more detailed supporting statistical measures that would help to breakdown, evaluate and steer policy development. Defra would then collate these measures and periodically publish reviews on particular themes.[31]

And in our current inquiry, our Government witnesses believed that:

determining a hard, quantitative, causal relationship, between an individual policy or even a potential group of policies on a particular indicator, is going to be quite a challenge.[32]

20. David Halpern, from the Behavioural Insights Team, described the ambitions for using the National Well-being measures to influence policies and behaviours. With development, such measures might be used to steer policy making where traditional cost-benefit analysis typically overlooked well-being.[33] We intend to examine the role of the Measuring National Well-being indicators in Government policy-making in a follow on inquiry, including whether the initiative might produce well-being metrics which could be compared with GDP in order to help assess whether growth was consistent with sustainable development.[34]

21. The separate development of the National Well-being and SDIs could obscure a coherent and full view of well-being that covers both a current and future generation perspective. Some types of measures are included in both sets of indicators, which is likely to confuse the public and also potentially policy-makers.

22. As soon as the National Well-being and SDI measures reach a stable state of development, the ONS and Defra should consider how a single framework could be produced. We recommend that this should be done as the UN Statistical Commission's work on well-being (paragraph 2) and the post-Rio draft Sustainable Development Goals (paragraph 47) take shape.

19   Informal Consultation on Sustainable Development Indicators, op cit. Back

20   Ev w7 Back

21   Informal Consultation on Sustainable Development Indicators, op cit. Back

22   Q2 Back

23   Q3 Back

24   Q6 Back

25   Q8 Back

26   IbidBack

27   Ev w7 Back

28   Ev w4 [WWF] Back

29   Ev w9 and 20 [Keep Britain Tidy and RSPB] Back

30   Ev w20 Back

31   Environmental Audit Committee, Embedding sustainable development: The Government's response, HC 877,op cit, p20 Back

32   Q 9 Back

33   Qq 50-52 Back

34   See Q 53 Back

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Prepared 29 November 2012