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BIG support for England’s well-being

30 May 2013

Today BIG has announced an additional £40 million for community health schemes across England. 14 organisations, including local health bodies and leading charities, have been awarded funding to deliver interventions that encourage healthier eating, increase physical activity and promote good mental health.

In this guest blog, the new economics foundation’s Saamah Abdallah discusses the impact to date of BIG’s Well-being programme and welcomes this further funding for projects that have had a lasting impact.

When the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) commissioned us at the new economics foundation (nef) in 2006 to design a set of tools to evaluate the impact of their Well-being programme in terms of people’s actual well-being, we were pleasantly surprised.

Here was one of the biggest funders in the UK looking to use a set of methodologies for measuring well-being which were still relatively new, and to use them in a way that had barely been seen.

Well-being

BIG has announced an additional £40m for community health schemes in England

The tools we developed asked beneficiaries of projects funded by the programme a range of questions about their physical activity, their eating habits, their mental health and their subjective well-being. Beneficiaries were asked at the beginning of a project and at the end to see the ‘distance travelled’.

Most of the questions included had been used before in surveys, but could they be used to evaluate the impact of a range of projects as varied as cookery classes for children, gardening sessions for the elderly and therapies for people with mental health problems? Would people’s well-being, measured using general questions about satisfaction with life and happiness, go up?

Seven years on and BIG’s gamble has paid off in more than one way. Firstly, whilst the measurement of well-being was a rather fringe activity in 2006, it has now become government policy. Since 2011, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has included four questions on subjective well-being in its largest survey, the Annual Population Survey. Data from the second complete year of well-being questions will be available this summer.

These questions are at the heart of the ONS’s Measures of National Well-Being, a project which was launched with some fanfare by the Prime Minister David Cameron. His promise that government would one day make decisions based on impacts on well-being may still be some way away, but several departments are beginning to explore how to use subjective well-being.

The Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions have written guidance on how to use subjective well-being in cost benefit analysis. The Department of Health has a strong commitment to look at positive well-being, and not just at reducing mental health problems.

Two women laughing

Funded projects will deliver interventions encouraging healthy eating, increased physical activity and good mental health

Communities and Local Government has produced estimates for well-being at the neighbourhood level and the Department for Transport is including well-being in its appraisal system.

As Government begins to look to how a well-being focus might shape policy, BIG is ahead of the curve, having already shown how to measure well-being in evaluation.

And, as BIG announces a further £40 million for the Well-being programme, the early results of the evaluation of the first five years are coming through, and the gamble has paid off in a second way.

As the evaluators, we at nef and our partners at Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), have found that the well-being of project beneficiaries has indeed gone up.  On average, life satisfaction went up by 0.7 points on a scale of 0-10 – that’s almost three times the impact that one would expect from someone’s income doubling.

Depressive symptoms amongst participants, the proportion of people not eating five portions of fruit and vegetables, and the number of people over 35 with low levels of physical activity all fell significantly.

Further analysis shows that all these impacts were sustained three to six months after a project ended, and sometimes even more, showing that beneficiaries were not just benefiting from a short-term fix.

The final report on the evaluation, due out this summer, will also demonstrate how the three strands of the programme – physical activity, healthy eating and mental health are intricately linked, with improvements in one area associated with improvements in the others. As a result, even projects that focus exclusively on one strand (for example physical activity), achieve improvements in the others.

Group photo after 10k run

Members of the NW Healthy Living Network complete a 10k run in Blackburn, Lancashire

The report also explores some of the factors that make some projects more successful than others.

For example, projects that involved volunteers had bigger impacts, as did projects that avoided framing themselves as ‘health awareness’ projects.  Interestingly, projects involving exercise actually had a bigger impact on healthy eating than projects that just focused on cookery or food awareness.

The Well-being programme and its evaluation have lots of implications. Firstly, they show that community-based projects can improve people’s perceptions of their lives in a sustained way. Secondly, they highlight the holistic nature of well-being – one cannot focus on one area whilst ignoring others.

Thirdly, they provide early indicators of the kinds of things governments could do to achieve their stated goal of increasing well-being. Making sure that more people benefit from the kinds of lifestyle changes the Well-being programme facilitates, it seems, has as big an impact on well-being, if not more, then simply focusing on increasing incomes.

Improving well-being is no longer just a slogan – it’s a science.

Saamah Abdallah is Senior Researcher at the new economics foundation

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