Ewen McKinnon: Case study

at Cabinet Office

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National Wellbeing and Civil Society Policy, Analysis and Insights Team, Cabinet Office

What can be more important than the social and economic wellbeing of the nation? Slightly rhetorical perhaps, but underlying this question are some important philosophical issues about what matters most to us, what we value and the type of society we want to leave for future generations.

We all make personal choices that affect our wellbeing – but our immediate social networks, civil society, businesses, and yes, government policy can make a difference too. So what should policy makers be doing to support wellbeing? In which areas does a focus on wellbeing tilt your perspective to such an extent that is changes your approach? These are some of the headline questions I have been taking to top academics at Cambridge over the last year as a CSaP Policy Fellow.

Over two visits in 2012 I met researchers from a wide range of disciplines – from computer scientists exploring how technology can measure and enhance social capital, to educationalists on interventions which improve both children’s wellbeing and educational outcomes. At the Philosophy Department we explored the historical roots of wellbeing – a rapid journey from Aristotle, through Hutcheson and Bentham to the present-day international interest in wellbeing across the political spectrum – adding weight to old quote “politics is philosophy in action”. Meetings with housing and land management experts, health academics, literature and environment specialists followed. Even the Business School pitched in on how we teach our future business leaders about corporate values, social responsibility and employee wellbeing – a key ingredient of productivity.

The breadth and diversity of interactions was matched by consistency of interest and enthusiasm among the researchers to explore how their disciplines could open up fresh new perspectives. There was also a strong element of challenge, particularly from economists, a discipline exercised and energised by wellbeing in equal measure.

So what has been the impact? There have been tangible outcomes. Discussions around the importance of Eudaimonia, and the wellbeing we derive from the sense of worth of our activities in life, led directly to additional primary analysis which in turn has informed international guidance. I have also been able to follow up with researchers when needed, for example recently on evidence around lifestyle choices and wellbeing. Importantly I have also been able to make links to other policy colleagues, and it is this extended network of contacts across such a broad range of disciplines and policy areas that stands to be one of the enduring impacts of my time as a Policy Fellow.

Bridging the gap between policy and academia, and providing opportunities for interdisciplinary interactions, are key ingredients to the CSaP Fellowship. These promote policy innovation and are very much consistent with principles of open policy making. Are there other key ingredients? Perhaps it’s appropriate to mention Foresight's excellent five-ways to wellbeing – “connect, learn, give/share, take notice and be active”. I’m sure current and future CSaP Fellows will recognise all these characteristics in the programme, especially when they next find themselves running between colleges and departments to make an appointment.