ASR at the OECD's 5th Annual World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy

In October, Susan Brutschy and Samantha Green of Applied Survey Research had the privilege of attending the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) 5th World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy in Guadalajara, Mexico. The conference provided an opportunity to raise our gaze beyond community level work, hear from international experts and acknowledge our role in a global world. 

Over the past decade the OECD has worked to place a broad understanding of wellbeing at the core of national and international policy. Just three years ago, at the 4th World Forum in Delhi, India the forum was very much about moving beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and developing new measures of progress. The 5th world forum, entitled “Transforming policy, changing lives,” was about moving from data to action. Wellbeing is now at the heart of understanding progress and the question now seems to be, how can we develop programs and policies to improve wellbeing and ensure that it is shared equally by all.

The global economic recession, improved data availability and emerging technologies have provided the evidence needed to move forward in our efforts toward shared wellbeing. Joseph Stieglitz, Nobel laureate in economics, presented on the promise of shared prosperity, noting that our continued focus on growth is not enough and that the belief that everyone will benefit from growth, even if it is distributed unequally, is wrong. That is not to say that everything we know about development of financial markets is wrong.  We also have the data to show that more equal societies fare better in the long run.  While many societies share the same market structures, those with policies aimed at shared prosperity and protections have seen economic gains without increased inequity. Its time to rethink our policies. Stieglitz remarked that security and trust are essential to wellbeing and growth, and that new social protections need to be assessed by who is being protected and how.

Last week also saw the Nobel Prize awarded to Angus Deaton an economist who has worked on poverty, equity and wellbeing. While he was unable to attend the conference, his work was ever present. A humanist at heart, Deaton was one of the first to argue that malnutrition was not only an effect but also a cause of poverty. Many speakers argued that we can no longer talk about successful economies or communities when people in those regions go without food or housing. So much of our work and funding at the community level is dedicated to improving outcomes, and many recent studies have had to make the economic case.  But equity isn’t just about disrupting strains on systems, it is about recognizing the social and emotional capacity of every individual in our community and providing them with the opportunity to fulfill that capacity.

Mario Pezzini, Director of the Development Center at the OECD noted that, “liquidity [investment] that has no eyes is dangerous.” Investment without eyes and a heart can lead us to places with short-term gains but long-term losses.  Today we have the power to make decisions based on evidence and the opportunity to empower communities with data needed to take action and improve their own wellbeing.

Our metrics affect not only what we do but what we see.  We have to start measuring wellbeing along side costs and improve our measures and understanding of risk and resiliency; to recognize and measure not only current variables but future ones. Better metrics inform better policies.  As evaluators, funders and consumers we expect data to be immediate.   We are used to seeing real time data and making instant course corrections.  Enrico Giovannini, Italian economist and statistician, presented what he sees as the current challenge in progress. He argued that while economic data is available in real-time, social indicators  often take two or three years to collect.  Our focus on these instant reads has prevented us from seeing the bigger picture and social indicators are needed to rebalance public discourse.

ASR, with participation from other notable experts including Toby Ewing, Geoff Woolcock and John Hall, led a session titled "Investing in Wellbeing: A Focus on Mental Health and Community Development". The session focused on the premise that social and emotional strength leads to community development, is measurable, promotes wellbeing for all and creates economic growth. 

So where do we begin? The good news is that we have already started.  These brilliant minds agreed that housing, education, mental health, youth employment and equity of opportunity are some of the most pressing issues we face today.  Here at ASR we have had the opportunity to witness incredible examples of communities addressing these issues locally. Whether it is Sonoma County using data to determine funding allocation and develop programs for homeless youth, Santa Cruz County using juvenile justice data to inform policy and provide second chances for youth, or Santa Clara County taking on the My Brothers Keeper Challenge to address disparities among boys and men of color, our partners are transforming policy and changing lives.

Of course, there is still more to do. It’s time to develop programs and policies focused on long-term gains rather than short-term outcomes. We have to focus on broader measures of wellbeing. This means that we also have to fund, plan and evaluate for these types of returns. Community level work has the potential to innovate and provide evidence for a new way of thinking about growth and development.  We have the opportunity to start looking at how programs and policies affect all domains of wellbeing and whether or no they impact different populations equally. Programs and communities are making progress but we can do more. We can develop better measures, learn from our data and grow what works.  It is time to raise our sights, look beyond our task today and plan for tomorrow.