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Dear Prime Minister,

I understand your point that we should not just think about money, but the idea of measuring the nation’s happiness, fills me with woe (and my happiness quotient dropped as a result).  Let me explain why I have some concerns about this idea by explaining the problems of measuring the nation’s happiness and then explain what you could sensibly measure, using good fourth generation balanced scoreacrd principles.

First the problems

1) Specifics:  It is a relatively vague, individual and nebulous concept until you ask, “Happiness with what?”.    Happiness with my job, family, home, football team, children, left leg?  Happiness is a nominalisation for a variety of different things.  It needs to be specified.

2) Ability to change:  Happiness is about what I can change and what I cannot.  If I am unhappy with my car I can change it (assuming I have enough money).  If I am unhappy with my job it is harder to change when the climate is tight.  So in a way it is about flexibility and what we can change – is a measure of happiness really a measure of that which we can influence?  I suspect it is to a large extent.

3) It is a personal thing.  I am happy with the economy, (I am a realist) but others aren’t.  Its a personal response to a situation.  The response is subjective and not dependent on the  source, merely the response.   So you need a longitudinal study of an individual’s response to changing circumstances to eliminate the variation in characters.  Characteristics that are not dependent on location, class, voting preference, age, or the  usual demographic characteristics.  Information that even the most dedicated telephone pollster will not have access to.

4) It is time bound.  If I am sitting on a tube train stuck in a tunnel with no clue as to when I will move again, I am probably unhappy about the situation that will resolve itself within the current hour (or less hopefully).  If I am unhappy with the state of our roads and the traffic jams on the M25, then I suspect I should not hold my breath for change.  It will continue to be bad, as the roadwork signs say, “Roadworks until March 2020” .

5) It is also relative to recent happiness. For instance, at the end of the second world war, the nation was happy, relative to where it had been during the war and in its darkest hour.  It was happy the war had ended.  It was probably unhappy about rationaing and shortages.  I suspect it was also as happy as it was in the 20’s even though things then were far better.  In otherwords if you make someone unhappy and improve things they will be happy (relieved).  In absolute terms, but it is relative to recent experience.

6) Can the government change it?  I am not happy with the current economic climate and the level of debt and expect the government to take suitable measures to rectify it.  I do not expect them to intervene over my disappointment that ESPN have half the rugby coverage and I would have to buy both a sky sport and ESPN subscription to see all the game of my premiership favourites.  This is a pain, but it is not (and should not be) in the government’s remit to fiddle with the commercial dealings of the premiership rugby.   If they do I will be unhappy.  Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  The government should only be interested in my happiness with those things that it can influence: education, employent, public services, security etc.  They should have no concern with my day to day life and whichever sport or team I support

So, what can we practically do to measure happiness?

1) Define specifically which aspects and measure those dimensions.  The characteristics.  The qualities of happiness.  This is a straight forward multi-dimensional survey as long as you define the characteristics, the qualities of happiness, you can measure them.

2) Define the cause and effect relationship.  If the government is seen to put money into schools I am only happier if I actually see the results through my children’s experience.  So Am I happy with schools?  I ask which part of the cause and effect chain?  If this is not clear then the question is meaningless.  If clear, then you have a chance of measuring it,  understanding what caused the happiness, and doing something about it.  Crime is the  same: The perception of crime vs my experience of crime and my experience of the police.  These are all different.  Be clear of the cause and effect relationship.

3) Be clear whose happiness you are interested in.    Actually I think the government should ensure that the police are happy with their role and support, likewise the Health service.  I suspect that affects their ability to do their job.  Not happiness by paying more, but happiness in terms of conditions and feeling supported in providing the opportunity to catch criminals, and care for people.

4) Recognise trade-offs:  The changes to the benefit system is a classic example.  The government is about to disappoint a lot of the people on the dole, receiving benefit and living off the state, who, according to Ian Duncan-Smith, should not be on state dependency.   However it will really please a lot of people who think they are scroungers and shirkers who are receiving money whilst others try to find a living.  Its a trade off.  So the government policies should lower some people’s happiness quotient, to the benefit of others.  Unless these societal trade-offs are recognised, any attempt to measure overall happiness  and expectation that it will universally rise, will be flawed.  You cannot please all the people all the time.  In fact you should expect to make some less happy (criminals for instance). Expect trade-offs

5) Use judgement, subjectivity and qualitative scales rather than quantitative scales. Ask people on a simple marks out of 10 scale whether they are happy and then ask them what would make that a 10.  This would probably elicit a wider variety of responses and variety of aspects that affect their happiness.  You are opening up a wider definition.  This would be releaving and provide an agenda for change.  (Do bear in mind teh question about specifically what you are asking about).  Actually I suspect this is what goes on in a focus group.  So frankly you have your happiness quotient already.

6) Happiness with government: Finally, we do already measure the nation’s happiness with our government and politicians every four to five years.  It is called an election.  We expressed our un-happiness with the last government in quite a detailed way.  We gave this government a remit to go ahead with their plans, which, quite rightly we shall judge with a suitable passage or time after implemenation has had some effect.

David (apologies for the familiarity) if you are reading this, I hope you have found it helpful to clarify your thinking.  These are the some of the principles I apply in public scetor fourth generation balanced scoercards.  Normally applied to more mundane issues like the health service, local government and fire services, but still relevant here. Happy to discuss further, as this is only a short blog.  All you have to do is sort out the public sector procurement issue (properly) so you can employ me to advise you, and I will be a happy man.

Phil Jones

Strategy & Performance management specialist