Monday, 15 November 2010

Happiness: Not a bad KPI as it happens.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) is to begin measuring happiness, apparently with David Cameron's blessing.

Predictably, the comments section on The Guardian, where I first heard about it, has gone into meltdown. I can only imagine what the comments section on The Daily Mail website looks like, because I refuse to add to their unique visitor numbers by taking a look. Please don't encourage them and they just might go away...

I agree with a lot of those comments; right in the middle of slashing public spending is not the best time to announce that you're going to try to measure happiness. If you do you should expect large numbers of people to rise up unbidden and inform you that they're "f***ing unhappy Cameron, you t**t", plus many other comments to that effect that you can find on the Guardian site.

"Bloody hell, Cameron - which part of having your HQ smashed up didn't you get?" OrishMartin

Right, so PR disaster. But is it a good KPI? It could be.

I've said before, when talking about dashboards, that KPIs are useful when you know what to do about them if they change. A fuel indicator on your car dashboard is a good KPI - if you're running out of fuel you'll stop and fill up, instead of needing to make an embarassing call to the AA from the hard shoulder.

A goverment could try to achieve lots of things: Full employment... a brilliant NHS... low inflation... I think that on balance, trying to achieve the happiest population that they can is not a bad goal. At least it's not a purely financial goal and that's an achievement in itself for the Tories.

Tracking whether or not you're achieving your goals is definitely a good idea, if that tracking helps to put you back on course should the KPI fall.

If the ONS's 'happiness tracking' is made up of a clear set of component parts - quality of housing, disposable income, health, free time... such that when you get a bad headline figure, you can see what caused it and try to fix the problem then it could well be worth the effort.

Isn't David Cameron lovely? He just wants to make us happy!

Putting the stats aside for a minute and my cynical hat on. What's he really up to?

I'd be willing to bet that this is actually the Government's attempt to give a voice to what they believe is a silent majority who are mostly happy. Unhappy people are very vocal and the internet, together with the need for rolling 24 hour news to fill its schedules, is making it easier to be a very noisy minority.

Hard numbers you can point at, "proving" that depite the complaints of a few, people are generally happy and are getting happier must look very tempting. (Especially when they're as easily rigged in your favour as a happiness statistic. Too cynical yet?)

I hope Cameron doesn't think that he will be able to point at a statistic which proves that those who complain are wrong and that the majority of the country is happy. It's the equivalent of an airline delaying you for twelve hours and losing your bags, then telling you you're one of a very few unlucky ones and they get it right for thousands of people every day. Want to see somebody really pissed off? Try that as a complaints tactic.

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