The BRAINPOoL Final Conference, “Beyond GDP – from measurement to politics and policy”, took place on the afternoon of the 24th March 2014 at the OECD Conference Centre in Paris. The conference focussed on the changes needed to enable a Beyond GDP approach to policy making. Two high-level panels each explored one of the project’s central recommendations: firstly, creating a Beyond GDP narrative which resonates and inspires confidence with the public; and secondly, developing techniques for helping address multiple goals and integrating different policy areas.
Towards a Beyond GDP narrative
The first session explored the question of how we can develop more compelling political narratives around Beyond GDP. Charles Seaford of the New Economics Foundation opened the session by setting out the challenge and some thoughts on possible responses. Current narratives about well-being and sustainability are politically weak, he suggested – but Beyond GDP approaches do connect to some politically strong concepts, such as ‘good jobs’ in relation to labour markets, or security and quality of life in relation to the green economy.
Among a panel of politicians from five European countries, there was broad agreement that it was both vital and possible to develop a Beyond GDP narrative which resonated with voters’ concerns. Laszlo Andor (Hungary), Enrico Giovannini (Italy) and Helen Goodman (UK) stressed the potential of concepts such as good jobs, security, community and equality. Panellists agreed that developing compelling narratives around sustainability was more of a challenge, although there was debate about the best response to this, with Helen Goodman and Chantal Jouanno (France) disagreeing about whether post-consumerist messages could resonate with European voters. There was also some debate about the nature of the problem, with Gus O’Donnell arguing from the floor that it was the media, not politicians or the public, that are obsessed with GDP, while Enrico Giovannini and Helen Goodman maintained that GDP and the way of thinking it represents do dominate the minds of policy makers themselves.
Panellists also discussed how these new messages might gain traction. Chantal Jouanno argued that developing a coherent alternative theory was critical, while Mikael Jungner (Finland) felt that the key problem was the rule-bound nature of government bureaucracies – suggesting a need both to change the rules of the game, and to empower officials to innovate and experiment. Various contributions from the floor stressed the need to broaden the conversation beyond experts: through democratic engagement to build a new vision of progress, using the concept of happiness to spark conversations about the things that really matter, and engaging with communications experts about how to ‘sell’ these new messages.
Integrated and innovative policy making for Beyond GDP
The second session focussed on policy implementation: how could the policy machine be reshaped to enable the integrated and innovative policy making demanded by a Beyond GDP approach? Saamah Abdallah of the New Economics Foundation opened the session by defining the challenge and some possible elements of a solution. Beyond GDP policy-making is inherently multi-dimensional, he argued, which means we need to accept greater complexity and/or develop new simplifying rules of thumb. This in turn requires changes to the entire policy making machine, both organisationally and in terms of the tools of policy development. These ultimately require leadership and concerted political will, but progress can be made now by building communities of practice among policymakers, statisticians and others.
We heard from the panel about how these challenges are being met or could be met in various different contexts – including well-being policy in the UK (Gus O’Donnell), assessing country economic success at the OECD (Andrew Dean), sustainable development in Belgium (Jan Verschooten), labour market policy in Germany (Volker Schmitt) and the future research agenda at the European Commission (Wanda Gaj).
Stefan Kooths (Kiel University, Germany) raised a note of challenge by arguing that a more integrated, holistic approach to policy making was in fact undesirable, and that the orthodox approach of limiting government intervention to specific market failures was essentially sound. Finance ministries rightly prioritised growth as the most painless way of dealing with poverty and public debt. This was hotly contested by other panellists, including Gus O’Donnell, who argued that the market-led approach had fundamental flaws including the inability to adequately address distributional issues and the under-valuing of non-market goods. Well-being analysis was a more appropriate tool for many areas of policy, he argued.
The panel discussed various ideas for overcoming barriers to Beyond GDP policy making, including mechanisms to address the mismatch between the short time horizons of the electoral cycle and the long-term nature of trends in sustainability and well-being, as well as the need for indicators to be published ‘in real time’ to penetrate political debate. On the question of innovation, Gus O’Donnell agreed with Mikael Jungner that more experimentation was needed, but queried whether empowering central government officials was the answer, saying that a better solution was decentralisation: ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’.
The presentations given at the conference can be found below.
Presentation 2: Towards a Beyond GDP Narrative
Presentation 3: Integrated & Innovative Policy Making for Beyond GDP