Five headline indicators of national success

Key findings
  • The UK public is consistent and clear about what they want the economy to deliver
  • The primary political objective of GDP growth is too narrow a measure to reflect real success
  • We have developed five new indicators that give a clearer picture of how the UK is doing

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October 26, 2015 // Written by:

Karen Jeffrey, Researcher, Wellbeing
Juliet Michaelson, Associate Director, Wellbeing

Secure, well-paid work. High levels of life satisfaction. Effective public services. A fair, prosperous economy. Most Britons share the same vision of national success – but why don’t our measures of progress?

An economy is only as strong as what it delivers. The UK public, when asked, is consistent and clear about what that should be: secure, well-paid work; high levels of personal wellbeing; effective public services that guarantee good health and education; low levels of economic inequality, and a healthy environment.

Good economic and social policy would aim to make these priorities a reality. But when it comes to assessing how our nation is performing, such outcomes are not sufficiently taken into account.

This report proposes five new headline indicators of national success for the UK. Our aim is to realign policy priorities with those of the public, building a stronger, more balanced economy.

Drawing from the latest international research on indicator design, and consultation with experts and organisations across the UK, we have identified the following five headline measures:

  1. Good jobs: everyone should be able to find secure, stable employment that pays at least enough to provide a decent standard of living.
  1. Wellbeing: improving people’s lives should be the ultimate aim of public policy, measured at headline level as average reported life satisfaction.
  1. Environment: our prosperity and that of future generations depends on a healthy environment. UK carbon emissions must not exceed the set limit if we want to avoid dangerous climate change.
  1. Fairness: high levels of inequality, evidenced by a growing gap between the incomes of the top and bottom 10% of households, have been proven to have corrosive effects on both society and economy.
  1. Health: good quality healthcare and public health provision, measured by a reduced percentage of deaths considered avoidable, is a pre-requisite for all other social and economic goals.

Such diverse policy goals already exist across individual government departments. But given the dominant role of the Treasury in British political life, its primary policy objective – increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – has become shorthand for national success.

Since the financial crisis GDP has returned to growth, but this single figure does not reflect the performance of the economy as a whole, nor does it reflect the full breadth of economic and social priorities held by the UK public. 

Our five indicators provide a clearer picture of the UK’s economic, environmental and social health. While there have been improvements in certain sectors since 2009, others have deteriorated.

Wellbeing and health have both seen improvements, but the underlying structure of the UK’s economy has allowed inequality to widen. Economic recovery since 2008 has meant a rise in overall employment, but at the same time, the proportion of people in secure, decently-paid jobs has fallen.

The UK’s environmental impact also remains cause for concern. Current carbon emissions have left our economy drifting on a fundamentally unsustainable course, at odds with national and global requirements to avert dangerous climate change.

Better headline indicators are essential for better policymaking. By using them to guide policy decisions, rather than assuming economic growth will automatically translate into other benefits, we can build an economy better suited to the needs of the individuals, communities and businesses it serves.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has previously acknowledged the need to develop better measures of national success, and began its Measuring National Wellbeing programme in 2010. We now call on the ONS to go further, adopting and refining these new headline indicators, and giving them highest priority in their schedule of regular data releases.

Implementing the five new headline indicators in this way will usher in a new, more rounded, smarter approach to policymaking – one which moves beyond a short-term obsession with narrow economic measures and our current, flawed conception of national success. 

With this change of approach we can continue to build a modern, dynamic economy that meets the needs and aspirations of the whole country.


Energy & Climate Change, Environment, Inequality, Jobs & Industrial Strategy, Macroeconomics, Wellbeing, Public Service Reform

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