What do citizens want? Well-being measurement and European social policymaking

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

“The gaps in the information which is already available are not a good enough reason for Europe to drag its feet in refocusing policy to ensure that the EU has a sustainable economic and social model capable of meeting the challenges it will face in the future,” write Sotiria Theodoropoulou and Fabian Zuleeg, policy analysts at the European Policy Centre, in a December paper.

“Social policy in the EU is at a crossroads as the European economic and social model comes under pressure from globalisation, demographic ageing, the rise of the service economy and climate change. Europe’s social agenda is currently being revised to address these challenges and the debate is underway on the follow-up to the Lisbon Strategy.

Surveys suggest that EU citizens do not expect their living conditions to improve in the future. This raises the question of what direction social policies should move in to increase their life satisfaction and well-being.

Some major international initiatives are already well under way to provoke reflection and debate on how social progress should be defined and measured. [We aim] to contribute to this ongoing debate by analysing the research to date from the European policymakers’ perspective.

The measurement of social progress has expanded beyond GDP to include other factors that contribute to ‘quality of life’. There are a number of ways of measuring quality of life. [We focus] on subjective well-being (people’s ‘sense’ of well-being) and, more specifically, life satisfaction.

After reviewing some of the current research on the measurement of social progress, this paper identifies some factors associated with ‘quality of life’ that can be directly influenced by policy choices. These include income levels, employment (or unemployment), health, education and the environment, and coincide to a significant extent with the concerns voiced by citizens over the state of the economy in Eurobarometer surveys and the 2007 and 2009 European Citizens’ Consultations.

The existing evidence also highlights some of the areas where policymakers need to focus their efforts to increase citizens’ life satisfaction: income growth, health, quality of work and differences in per capita income.

[Our] review of the evidence suggests that there are ways in which the measurement of well-being and the analysis of existing indicators could be improved to provide policy-makers with better information about the policy choices they face. This publication highlights the following priorities for action:

  • European policymakers need to know more about citizens’ preferences regarding the trade-offs involved in meeting current and future challenges. This could be done by using surveys to not only ask citizens how important an aspect of a policy or life is, but also by posing questions that explicitly state the trade-offs and the constraints under which choices can be made, to reveal their priorities.
  • A clearer understanding of the nature of the association between life satisfaction and aspects of quality of life is needed. Policymakers need to know whether such links are coincidental (spurious) or if one causes the other (causal) – and if the latter, what is the cause and what is the effect. They also need to know what determines the balance between direct and indirect impacts on life satisfaction, and more about how social policy changes affect life satisfaction.
  • More data analysis on the determinants of life satisfaction for particular groups in society is required. Analyses of the determinants of life satisfaction at the country level investigate the association between nationally-averaged data on various aspects of life and life satisfaction. However, as averages mask the uneven distribution of resources among individuals and differences in circumstances, these analyses are likely to miss important differences in the determinants of life satisfaction in different groups in society.

It remains an open question whether more and better information would enable policy-makers to identify a single model and devise policies accordingly. The existing research on the definition and measurement of well-being provides some insights into citizens’ preferences. However, these need to be investigated further in the light of the trade-offs and resource constraints facing European social policy-makers when deciding between policy options.

The credibility of the vision that can emerge from gathering and analysing this data for the future of Social Europe depends not only on improving the measurement and definition of aspects of well-being, but also on how they are weighted against each other.”

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