Archive for July, 2012

Happiness by Numbers

The publication this morning of the First ONS Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results (a catchy title no doubt tested by the Behavioural Insights Team for its impact on our levels of happiness) is cause for some amusement (  While the results are presented in detail, the one thing not properly addressed in the material, or in any of the discussion of it so far, is ‘so what?’  What on earth is to be done with the ‘knowledge’ that people are happier in one part of the country than in others, or that you were more likely to have felt anxious yesterday if you classified yourself as Arab?  What are the policy options available?

But there is a worrying aspect to this.  Alongside the recent paper on the use of randomised controlled trials in policy making (, there is the prospect of ‘happiness’ experiments.  Do policy initiatives affect the results next year?  Leave aside all the problems of attributing causation, there must be someone in Whitehall even now adding happiness into the great calculating machines that they run at the Treasury to model monetary and fiscal policy.

I have been reading a number of works recently that take an ethnographic approach to the study of the state and its works.  We can anticipate furious government activity, each department developing its own contribution to improving happiness unrelated to the activities of all other government departments.  These will all have conflicting implications and impacts.  And they will affect very little. Indeed, those coordinating the activities of the state will be us.  We will be left to cope and adapt as the frantic activity continues around us.  As Tess Lea at Sydney has recently suggested, if you want to see anarchy, watch the state and its bureaucracy in action.

Secrecy and Justice

In the last few days, a number of elderly Kenyans have taken their case against the British government to the High Court.  Against legal objections and despite problems accessing all the relevant records, justice might be done.  The records, it appears, were taken from Kenya at independence and deposited in the Foreign Office, alongside those from a number of other former colonies.  But the records are there and can be retrieved.

At the same time, we hear from the Information Commissioner that civil servants, long opposed to the Freedom of Information Act, might be using their private email addresses and other ways of avoiding records being kept of their exchanges.  Cabinet Secretaries, past and present, are reluctant to release documents to the Chilcott Inquiry on Iraq.  In short, a culture of secrecy persists in the corridors of power despite the political platforms of all major parties.

Whitehall, that paragon of good government!  Sometimes it stinks.