The Wellbeing of Nations: An interview with author Paul Allin

What is national wellbeing and what is progress? Why measure these definitions? Why are measures beyond economic performance needed and how will they be used? How do we measure national wellbeing & turn the definitions into observable quantities? Where are we now and where to next?

These questions are asked and answered in the much needed, timely book, The Wellbeing of Nations: Meaning, Motive and Measurement by Paul Allin and David J. Hand.

The Wellbeing of Nations provides an accessible and comprehensive overview of the measurement of national well-being, examining whether national wellbeing is more than the sum of the wellbeing of everyone in the country, and identifying and reviewing requirements for new measures. It begins with definitions, describes how to operationalize those definitions, and takes a critical look at the uses to which such measures are to be put. The authors examine initiatives from around the world, using the UK ‘measuring national wellbeing programme’ as a case study throughout the book, along with case studies drawn from other countries, as well as discussion of the position in some countries not yet drawn into the national wellbeing scene.

Statistics Views talks to co-author Paul Allin about the origins of the book, the Wellbeing Project, Office for National Statistics, its target audience and the writing process with co-author David J. Hand.

1. Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your book, The Wellbeing of Nations: Meaning, Motive and Measurement which provides an accessible and comprehensive overview of the measurement of national wellbeing, examining whether national wellbeing is more than the sum of the wellbeing of everyone in the country, and identifying and reviewing requirements for new measures. How did the writing process begin? Was it the ONS project as directed by government that initiated the project?

I’d written a piece about the Office for National Statistics (ONS) measuring national wellbeing programme that prompted Wiley to ask David Hand and me to work up a book proposal. The ONS programme is not just directed at meeting government requirements for new data; we saw that it tapped into an international groundswell of interest in measures that go beyond GDP, the long-established measure of a country’s economic performance. So, David and I felt that we had a lot we could draw on and discuss in a book.

2. Who should read the book and why?

We hope that many people will find our book interesting and useful. We are very keen to attract statisticians, economists, social researchers, policy makers and others in governments at all levels, especially national Statistics offices and international organisations, but also city and local government officials. We hope that it will connect with a wide range of academic disciplines and studies and, perhaps above all, we want to contribute to a wider debate about what kind of society we live in and how we define our wellbeing and progress.

3. The scientific study of subjective wellbeing during the last two decades has important implications for social policy but realisation of many of those implications depends on our ability to measure wellbeing at the societal/national level. How did you begin to address this within the book?

This is indeed one of the core issues we explore. We wanted to address it by taking a step back, to review what new measures were wanted. We also saw that in a number of countries, including the ONS programme, individual wellbeing is considered to be at the heart of societal or national wellbeing. It seems to us that subjective wellbeing is measurable, although we are still learning how to measure it. But this is not a universal view. For example, in North America and in a number of European countries, there is less interest in subjective wellbeing measures, and a greater focus on more objective measures. All that got us thinking about setting the subjective wellbeing measures broadly. Related to this, in many countries, including the UK, there is continued interest in the idea of sustainable development – how what are we doing is affecting the resources around us and within us. So, David and I wanted to set subjective wellbeing in a much broader context of measuring national wellbeing.

4. The book begins with definitions, describing how to operationalize these definitions, and then takes a critical look at the uses to which such measures are to be put. What is interesting is that you also examine initiatives from around the world, using the ONS project as a case study throughout the book, along with case studies drawn from other countries as well as discussion of the position in some countries not yet drawn into the national wellbeing scene. The book therefore has more of an international perspective than one would originally be led to believe. Were there any initiatives that you discovered abroad that the ONS could consider taking on?

We certainly hope that the book, including the extensive collection of developments that we list, will help the ONS and other national statistics offices to build their programmes. We draw attention to a number of cross-national initiatives where individual countries are already contributing and, I’m sure, learning from. Some of the areas we have in mind are already covered by the ONS, but there are also areas where there is certainly more to be done. We think the UK work does exemplify the importance of measuring what matters to people and having an interaction with policy, to see how policy makers respond to new measures. As already mentioned, we are interested in measuring subjective wellbeing; this is an emerging science and we are still learning how to do that. Finally, we are interested in how to present subjective wellbeing measures, how to get them used and involved in policy and in everyday life.

Paul Allin


5. What is it about the area of wellbeing and statistics that fascinates you and Professor Hand?

We have both always been driven by the application of statistics, as well as by the importance of robust and proper measurements. David has a phrase about statistics being the mirror through which we view society, and we strongly believe that to understand how a country or society is doing these days; we use rigorous, timely and relevant statistics. Crucially, governments, business and individuals need to take decisions and actions informed by these statistics. That’s why we think that statistics in this whole area are so important.

6. Why is this book of particular interest now?

As we explain in the book, this is not a new idea. However, we do detect renewed commitment to measuring wellbeing beyond just measuring GDP. We want to support that, as well as making the connection with other political and social approaches, such as sustainable development, green growth, and human development and progress. These are all very much being talked about and considered now. We see them all as part of the big picture, measuring national wellbeing.

7. What were your main objectives during the writing process? What did you set out to achieve in reaching your readers?

We wanted to encourage our readers to think about what national wellbeing means, and how new measures should be used, as well as setting out helpful criteria for robust and strong measures of national wellbeing and progress. We wanted to study the ONS programme (which we have both been involved with in various ways) in some depth, but also to reflect on and consider the use of many other national and international developments.

8. Were there areas of the book that you found more challenging to write, and if so, why?

We soon realised that we couldn’t capture, let alone review, every international development. There are many of these, and we quite openly admit that, and look forward to hearing about those that we haven’t yet discovered.

We had to find a way of taking stock and coming to some interim conclusions. We had to identify why it is exciting and interesting to measure these things, and how our readers can follow up on existing resources that we’ve already found and let us know of other things that are happening out there.

David J. Hand


9. What will be your next book-length undertaking?

It is early days, but I would like to follow up on this to see how the topic evolves, including how it plays into the development of successors to the Millennium Development Goals, which are coming along. I’m also very keen to explore more about how statistics feature in political and moral discussions. I think there’s more to learn about the some of the very early concepts and developments that we talk about in the book, not just thinking about the last 50 years. We were fascinated to come across Sir John Sinclair who around 1790 was writing about and reporting on the “quantum of happiness” in the people of Scotland. It’s a lovely phrase and there is more to find out there about what he had in mind and how close he was to measuring national wellbeing as we now see it.

10. Please could you tell us more about your educational background and what was it that brought you to recognise statistics as a discipline in the first place?

I studied mathematics at the University of Manchester and found I was particularly interested in the statistics options there, reading what was a very broad course stretching from highly theoretical through to very applied mathematics. By my final year, around half of my course was statistics and probability.

Looking for a job, at the time, the government statistical service was one of the largest recruiters of statisticians (back in the early 1970s). I was fortunate to be offered, as my entry point to the government statistical service, the chance to take an MSc in statistics and then to work in the service after that.

So, I did an MSc at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, working mainly on time series analysis with Professor Maurice Priestley and others there.

My career from then on has been in official statistics.

11. You are the Director of the Measuring National Wellbeing Programme, Office of National Statistics (now retired). What are your memories when you look back on your at the ONS and what do you feel were your main achievements?

I have many good memories of working with some great teams of people, not only on the Measuring National Wellbeing programme, but also the other regular outputs and developments I worked on over the years. I am particularly proud of having set up the national wellbeing programme, and that it was launched by the Prime Minister and the National Statistician, the head of the government statistical service, in November 2010. That was quite a big day for me!

12. How do you think the Bureau evolved during your time there overall and adapted to the changing needs of the statistical community?

I started my career in what was then called the Central Statistical Office, and I worked in a range of government policy departments before returning to what by then was the ONS. I think ONS and government statistics more widely made huge strides in delivering statistics and in reaching out to the community whereas, in the early days, they were mainly in a sense broadcasting the figures and talking to a few key users. Technology played a great role here and the shift from paper reports to online publications and databases has also been supported by the development of the release of data in secure environments for analysis. What was in the early days called secondary data analysis was very much seen as that. It took place sometime after statistical reports had been made available, when academics might do some further research on the data. Nowadays, access to secure data – confidentially held – is being accepted as a primary form of dissemination, and much more work is being done on the data. ONS are no longer the only people who analyse their data, which I think is a great development.

13. Are there people or events that have been influential in your career?

I am particularly grateful to people I have worked with over the years who have stressed the importance of using good statistics in real life, in policy and in business. People like Claus Moser who was head of the CSO when I joined. Dipak Nandy was at the Equal Opportunities Commission when I went there to set up their statistics unit, and Dipak was very committed to getting information out about discrimination in society and using data in legal cases and in investigations. There are also people like Stella Cunliffe and Ian Maclean who’ve done so much to build the statistics user community. Finally, sparing the blushes of my co-author, David Hand, I’ve learnt much over the years about measurement from David, and it’s been a real pleasure and very enjoyable to work with David on this book.


Copyright: Photographs appears courtesy of Mr Allin and Professor Hand