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Embedding wellbeing science in decision-making: an OPM/Sciencewise project

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If policy makers want to know how to tackle loneliness and raise social capital and wellbeing in our communities, who has the answers? Us, and our colleagues in government? Or people who've known, and still know, what it is to be lonely?

That question is the basis of a project in the Open Policy Making team to discuss three policy areas with people and hear their thoughts, perspectives and ideas on what government should do to help. It's a public dialogue project funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills' Sciencewise programme (an old friend of the OPM team - we've just done our second event with them this year, workshopping public dialogue as an open policy technique with participants from several departments). But this project is adding an interesting new angle. Most of their work asks the public about their views on science and technology topics. This project is using wellbeing science (the great wealth of research, data and academic literature on what helps us lead our best lives) as a lens to look at three different policy areas, working with three departments: loneliness, the active labour market, and Community Rights.

The project originated with the wellbeing policy programme just around the corner here in Cabinet Office, which you can read more about in the latest edition of Civil Service Quarterly (also the previous team of yr humble blogger - hence the matching byline!) There's been some discussion with the public about what wellbeing means to them, namely the big consultation by the Office for National Statistics that helped them create the Measuring National Wellbeing framework. This project takes the next step, asking people what wellbeing ought to mean for policy.

At the end of it, three policy areas will have exciting new ideas to work with as they develop and implement their policies. And the OPM team will have a toolkit that will help other policy teams understand how the public thinks about wellbeing, and how they can use those insights or even a public dialogue project of their own to make better policies and interventions, informed by knowledge of what helps people feel happier or more satisfied with their lives.

We're working with the New Economics Foundation's Centre for Wellbeing (nef), who are providing their expertise in wellbeing science and making sure it all runs smoothly, and Hopkins van Mil: Creating Connections (HVM) to run our dialogues. Facilitating public dialogues is a specialist skill, especially for subjects that are emotive and personal to people (like loneliness), and HVM are bringing years of expertise and experience in helping people express their thoughts in ways policy makers can understand. Each policy area has two tailored sessions, about two and a half weeks apart, in two locations. In the first session the participants hear about the policy and relevant wellbeing science, and start discussing and creating their own ideas for interventions. In the second session they're presented back with some of these ideas to talk in more depth about how they might work and the benefits they would bring, thinking especially about their wellbeing and how the ideas could make their own lives better. We're also holding a session with frontline workers to test the ideas with them.

We know these sessions have been going well: Saamah from nef wrote about his experience for their blog, and the independent evaluation has shown that participants responded really positively to hearing that the government is looking at this and being asked what they thought. (For me, the best sign that the people who attended one of the loneliness sessions got a lot out of it was hearing one of the groups talking about going on to the pub together after the second meeting finished!)

The other thing we need for a successful project is engaged policy makers who agreed to let us open up their subject to this newfangled 'wellbeing science'. I asked the policy team who worked with us on loneliness, from the Centre for Social Action (CSA) here in Cabinet Office, whether it was a useful exercise. The team agreed it gave them an insight into how loneliness is experienced by individuals and across communities, and the impact interventions might have there, highlighting for them the importance of engaging with the public when developing policy on a subjective issue like loneliness. Our policy makers weren't allowed to give a steer to the sessions; they liked that this gave participants the freedom to discuss the issues that were important to them and develop solutions without being influenced.

After the sessions, the CSA felt they better understood how they could help communities tackle the issues around loneliness. Participants discussed a number of policy solutions like employer based interventions, community incentives, greater responsibility for health care professionals and national awareness-raising campaigns, reflecting the diverse range of participants who had themselves experienced loneliness at different stages in their life. It gave the CSA new ideas to think about, as well as different ways of thinking about existing projects, and a better idea of how people might prioritise the range of interventions on offer.

So, worth doing? we asked. Oh, yes. Nicola Woodward, who is taking six months out from her PhD to work in the CSA and attended both sessions in Bedford, said, “I felt it was really well received and participants left not only feeling they had had the opportunity to share their experiences and voice their suggestions to government officials, but they seemed to benefit from talking openly about this to other people. Seeing as loneliness can be such a difficult subject to discuss, I felt the sessions were run really well and the facilitators were successful at engaging all participants.”

We still have two more policy areas to go, so there will be regular updates on this blog as we finish off the public dialogue sessions, consider how the findings fit into policy, and start developing the toolkit.

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