Super-policies? A wellbeing approach to building back better

14 July 2020

Building back better requires creativity and confidence, and the ability to try to think outside of the old silos that we are used to

Jennifer Wallace

Far from being a great leveller, we now know that COVID-19 is turbo-charging existing inequalities. While some will emerge largely unscathed from the pandemic and economic aftershock, others will have their life chances severely and permanently altered.

Our own evidence shows a stark increase in people accessing payment breaks for credit, similarly a BMG poll for The Independent newspaper found that people from BAME households were almost twice as likely as White households to report having lost income or jobs since the onset of the pandemic. Inequalities between regions and places are also being magnified. Early analysis of the economic impacts of COVID-19 thus far show that areas with high levels of dependency on tourism, leisure and agriculture are particularly vulnerable to economic loss.

As we grapple with these deepening inequalities, we are also entering the Decade of Action on the Sustainable Development Goals, or what the UN see as the ‘ten years to transform the world’. There is no time left to take our attention away from averting the impending climate catastrophe. Thus, it hardly needs stating that the decisions made now by governments, local authorities and international organisations will affect the trajectory and nature of our individual and societal wellbeing for many years.

For many governments, the primary way to improve wellbeing over recent decades has been to view things in silos – with the ‘domains’ of wellbeing (economy, environment, society and democracy) existing largely separate from each other with different narratives and notions of what is see as ‘common sense’. Actions within silos may have improved wellbeing in normal times – but arguably with diminishing returns -, they cannot rise effectively to the major challenges that we now face.

Decision-makers need to chart a recovery from the pandemic with a new way of thinking. We do not have the luxury of time or resources to allow an economic recovery to take place in a way that further exacerbates the environmental challenges, and we cannot consign large swathes of the population to poor quality jobs knowing that this only results in poorer health and decimated communities. If the key issue is that those who focus on the economy think that environmental, democratic or social outcomes are someone else’s ‘domain’, and vice versa, this is clearly unsustainable, and we need an easy way to capture everyone’s attention to make our societies better.

This is where the concept of a super-policy comes in. Super-policies are those that achieve positive outcomes across a wide range of areas beyond that which was their primary intention, and which do not have unintended negative outcomes or externalities.

The advantage of the definition of a super-policy is that it does not require people to set aside their primary intentions. It does not expect headteachers to stop seeing education as their primary concern, or town centre managers to become experts in anti-poverty strategies. It merely asks people to factor in additional outcomes that could reasonably be achieved, or to mitigate negative outcomes that emerge in other domains.

From a wellbeing perspective, while it is relatively easy to think of policies that have one additional benefit (looking at eco -schools, for example), it is much harder to identify super-policies that work across all four domains of wellbeing (see figure 1).  In fact, I found it hard to think of any, but a quick crowdsource via twitter came up with these ideas:

  • Community shares in town centres to build a sustainable local economy;
  • Community ownership of renewable energy projects, that put the profits back into the local community;
  • Participatory budgeting for core public sector budgets, and not just for additional spending;
  • New and upgraded energy efficient social housing projects, drawing on a retrained workforce post- COVID-19.

These are just a few ideas from thousands of possibilities. Building back better requires creativity and confidence, and the ability to try to think outside of the old silos that we are used to.  So, in the spirit of democracy, what would you propose as a super-policy for #buildbackbetter?


Source: Carnegie UK Trust, 2020