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Well-being in Northern Ireland

By Guest contributor 20 August 2014

Lauren Pennycook is a Policy Officer at the Carnegie UK Trust, which works throughout the UK and Ireland to influence policy and change lives through innovative practice and partnership work.

Significant challenges to the well-being of communities in Northern Ireland include highly complex issues, such as public unrest , significant variations in educational attainment, and high suicide rates. Responsibility for tackling these diverse and deeply-rooted challenges resides, as you might expect, with different government departments.

But can a single government focus on well-being help to address such different, but equally enduring, challenges fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement?

The limitations of GDP as a measure of societal progress are well known, but economic recovery in Northern Ireland is as fragile as social problems are persistent. So while it is unsurprising that policymakers focus their minds on how to achieve economic growth, it is not enough.

As part of our work exploring how the concept of well-being can promote social change, the Carnegie UK Trust is convening the Carnegie Roundtable on Measuring Well-being in Northern Ireland during 2014. The aim of the roundtable is to raise awareness of the importance of measuring well-being and the positive impact that this can have on policy development. Because as Gus O’Donnell, Chairman of Frontier Economics, says: ‘focusing on wellbeing would, and should, change public policy’.

Our focus group research with women, older people, ethnic minorities and younger people, and our open call for input into the work of the roundtable, found that the challenge for well-being in Northern Ireland is to address deprivation experienced across different generations. And it cannot be tackled on a project by project basis; it requires systemic change.

It looks like there may be a window of opportunity to influence this if we can break down government silos. The introduction of a well-being framework focused on achieving well-being outcomes fits in well with a number of developments already taking place in Northern Ireland, including public sector reform, the reform of local government, community planning and the Executive’s commitment to Delivering Social Change.

So with the next Programme for Government, the Northern Ireland Executive has the opportunity not just to tackle the symptoms of the challenges it is currently focusing on—mental  health, community safety and weak social capital—but to take a broader view of policymaking and to focus resources on enabling people to live well in their communities.

With one focus, one narrative and one public sector framework based on achieving well-being outcomes, the Executive can identify the priority challenges to the well-being of communities, and ultimately, the goals which unite rather than divide Northern Ireland. And, as NPC explains in Measure What You Treasure, it can then join up well-being data with decision-making to deliver change.