People’s well-being as mission for Europe

October 2021

In recent years, there is a lot of talking about taking (European or any other) policies closer to the citizens. This would actually also mean to better target them to what citizens expect from policy making.

Cutting a long story short, one might argue that in essence people strive for ensuring or improving their well-being and quality of life, however they may define it. This in turn means that people’s quality of life also concerns public policy and decision making. In a democracy, where public policy making serves its citizens, the sum of all public policies and decisions should ultimately aim at ensuring the well-being and quality of life of the citizens. This line of reasoning is actually very close to the article 3(1) of the Treaty on the European Union outlines which states that Union's aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its people. In a sense, citizens show in public elections which parties or persons they consider best capable to do so – in accordance with the aspects of quality of life they value most. However, there might be more to it.

Understanding subjective diversities

Focusing policy making on people’s well-being or quality of life – more directly than just indirectly via general elections – comes with at least two fundament challenges.

How to define quality of life or well-being? The challenge is that quality of life concerns our personal well-being, looking beyond standardised indicators on economic output or living standards. Our quality of life is shaped by what matters to us, i.e. how we see our position in life in the context of our culture and value systems and in relation to our expectations and standards. Basically, quality of life or well-being are highly subjective, place- and context-specific and vary over time. This could be the end of the discussion. However, for some people it is important enough to go further, find workable definitions and ways to measure it.

How to measure quality of life or well-being? These question has been widely addressed in recent years. Among others OECD (how is life? well-being), Eurostat (quality of life) and others have started to define quality of life or well-being, and find ways to make it measurable. Following up on this, ESPON has pushed it even further and developed an innovative approach which reflects the territorial diversity of quality of life, as well as the citizen-centred, subjective and time-bound understanding of it (territorial quality of life).

Quality of life as mission for policy making

Even if we manage to understand and measure how people envisage their well-being or quality of life and what they subsequently expect from policy making, how could that help policy making? Would we envisage ministries of well-being or a European Fund for Quality of Life? Hardly. There is no blueprint on what to do. There will also not be a one-size-fits-all solution. To even consider quality of life or well-being as overarching objective of public policy making, we need to collect and embrace many ideas and call for bolder ideas, more along the lines of Rob Hopinks (What if things turned out OK?), Mariana Mazzucato (moonshot missions) or Geoff Mulgan (quicken societal imagination).

What if, we could run wide citizens participatory processes – not just involving the usual suspects – to understand what they value, how they see their personal well-being and quality of life and their future outlooks? Various experience with local, regional and national citizen parliaments, the Conference on the Future of Europe or the New European Bauhaus are certainly first steppingstone. Could they be enlarged to cover a broader spectrum of our societies – beyond the usual suspects – and learn from the ESPON experience on Territorial Quality of Life Living Labs? This might allow to better understand also the diversity of understanding quality of life between places and societal groups as well as over time.

What if, we could align all public policies and investments towards the outcomes of the processes on well-being? What is true for cohesion is even more true of quality of life or well-being, it cannot be achieved by a single policy or single player. Its complexity implies that policies and players over a wide range of sectors and governance levels need to collaborate. Putting people’s well-being at the centre of public policy making, might actually call for a mission-oriented approach to policy making. As described in Mariana Muzzacto, such a mission-oriented approach implies a full-hearted ambitious and visionary policy – or a bold societal goal – which brings together collaboration on a large scale between many players, and also involves citizen participation and institutional innovations.

Can we imagine such an utopia? It might come closer Ulrike Guérot’s vision of a European republic. It might help to strengthen the issue of interpersonal solidarity raised by Sophie Pornschlegel. It might also strengthen inter-personal cohesion and help to reverse the increasing fragmentation and conflicts between societal groups and places in Europe (see also our earlier blog post).

All it takes is to dare thinking along those lines, encourage platforms to exchange new approaches and engage in experimental activities to explore and learn. Maybe the ESPON living labs on territorial quality of life can be a first step in that direction.

by Kai Böhme

Only members who have access to this post can read and write comments.