It’s easy to say that as local decision makers and place-shapers, everything we do is about creating the right environment for people to be happy and healthy and enjoy a sense of wellbeing. However, it often doesn’t feel as simple as that – especially when we’ve been making the kind of hard decisions on priorities that we’ve now been making for 8 years. That’s why for me, anything that strengthens our ability to assess decisions and policy on social value and wellbeing is an especially important tool in the context of an unknown financial landscape. We should welcome it and use it.
For nearly half a century the Treasury’s Green Book has provided guidance to help officials develop transparent, objective, evidence-based appraisal and evaluation of proposals to inform decision making. While the 2003 Green Book wording did mention wellbeing in the evaluation framework, the updated version goes a lot further, now explicitly stating wellbeing as the core aim of economic appraisal.
It states on p12 -
“Economic appraisal is based on the principles of welfare economics – that is, how the government can improve social welfare or wellbeing, referred to in the Green Book as social value.”
The Green Book then goes on to give advice on how to set wellbeing as a strategic objective, how to use it developing policy options and how to appraise options by comparing wellbeing - The What Works Centre for Wellbeing has useful summary here.
Although most councils already try to do this and many implement a Health in All Policies (HiAP) approach, to see it explicitly stated in the Treasury’s Green Book gives renewed strength to both officers and leaders in making policy which focuses on how to improve people’s lives for the long term. Local economic strategies should focus on quality, meaningful jobs and the conditions which allow positive social interactions and not only on GDP, and emotional health in schools is given just as much consideration as attainment.
Of course part of the problem with evaluating social impact is that it’s harder to quantify than money in the bank, as the Green book also explains:
“The aim of wellbeing analysis is to better demonstrate the full implications of policies. The government has already begun the work of improving our understanding of such impacts.
For example, how do we include the additional benefits of ‘good relationships’ when we are assessing a policy, to take into account the additional time, resources – and costs – they bring? How can we assess the impacts on community cohesion when comparing a number of transport options? Some of these wellbeing impacts are monetised, where robust figures are available and we can ‘triangulate’ these with other evidence sources to confirm that the figures do make sense.”
This is also good news, though of course I’m being optimistic in how this will translate into action, any resource and effort the government can put into improving the evidence base on social value is welcome. Some might be thinking back to the Social Value Act of 2012, which required councils to think about the social economic and environmental benefits of their decisions when commissioning contracts of a certain value. Some were concerned about the impact of the Act and the same criticisms will no doubt be levelled at the Green Book changes in the midst of a social care crisis. However, whilst neither may solve any of our problems alone they give us important reference points when making our decisions locally and making our case to central government – good economic policy is about achieving long term social value. So we need to continue to do make those decisions to the best of our ability – invest in prevention and protect spending on the social determinants of health. Whilst doing so we need to keep evaluating and amassing the evidence, the Green book helps us to do that and therefore strengthens our call to government to devolve the powers we need to deliver long term wellbeing for our communities.