On Wednesday 9 December 2020, the International Development Section invited Paul Allin gave a talk titled: From GDP to Sustainable Wellbeing: Changing statistics or changing lives?
Paul Allin is a visiting professor of statistics at Imperial College London and the chair of the Statistics User Forum. His previous career was as professional statistician, researcher and policy analyst in the Office for National Statistics and other UK government departments and agencies. His talk was based on research reported in a new book, with David Hand, into the measurement of national wellbeing and progress, especially on the use (or not) of such statistical measures in politics, policy, business and everyday life.
Covid-19 has highlighted the need for timely, relevant and reliable statistics to manage the pandemic. People are also debating whether we should “build back better”. That also puts statistics in the spotlight, with renewed calls to assess progress using measures of sustainable wellbeing that go beyond the goal of increasing gross domestic product (GDP). Will life in future be concerned not just with how much we have, but also how much happiness this gives us, how fairly resources are shared, and at what cost to the natural environment?
Paul noted that there is a clear and long-held vision that official statistics should be indispensable in democratic society. They should be available generally, not only for governments to use. However, not much is known about how official statistics are used in practice. Moreover, official statistics are only part of an increasingly complex data ecosystem. Paul proposed that official statistics systems will be more effective if they embrace more than just government-funded producers of statistics in order to generate quality, public statistics. National statistics offices should lead the delivery of public statistics, including by engaging more with the public, businesses, and civil society. While changing statistics and looking at more than GDP is necessary, this is not sufficient to build back better. For that, we also have to use the available evidence to inform how we live our lives and how we run our businesses.
The talk gave rise to a very interesting set of questions and comments, starting with the difficult place that official statisticians inhabit. The challenge is to be independent of political processes while providing policy-relevant statistics to government and to those who want to evaluate the effectiveness of government. Other issues included the value of analysis to accompany statistical outputs, for example on how multiple measures complement each other, or where there might be differences. Underlying data should also be more readily available, without disclosing personal details. There are options for combining measures (for example the Carnegie Trust’s Gross Domestic Wellbeing, although Paul was not convinced that hosts of new summary measures were now needed. Cross-national comparisons were not necessarily the priority. The case for going beyond GDP had been made. It was time to take action based on “roughly measuring the right concepts”, as Gus O’Donnell had recently urged, rather than using 'more precise measures of the wrong concepts'.
Phil Crook, IDS Meetings Secretary
Watch the video on our YouTube channel.