On spinnin’

Once again my workplace has left me spinning. There was another meeting yesterday, this time reviewing a project which is developing a framework to assess the social impact of policy decisions. The idea is to create a tool that allows policy makers and funders to consider the repercussions of their decisions in the context of community and social wellbeing, much as there are similar tools through which they may assess environmental impact and compliance with equalities duties.

In principle, this is a good thing: a way for those with power to formally consider, within the decision-making process, whether a certain course of action will have a positive or negative impact on the quality of people’s lives. It is a complex undertaking and it certainly doesn’t expect or claim to be a comprehensive or infallible tool. It is only the very first draft of something new that may or may not prove to be successful and workable for the people intended to use it. My colleagues developing this tool are motivated by the desire to improve the conditions in which people live – and of course I would prefer that policymakers consider people’s wellbeing rather than digits on a spreadsheet, when they choose to do or not do things.

What freaked me out was the tunnel vision that enveloped what would probably be described by others as an aspirational or pioneering piece of work. The purpose of this framework is essentially to translate wellbeing into a language that can be understood by those who “only speak numbers and money” as one meeting participant put it. It is an attempt to quantify the qualitative, insofar as that is possible; to capture the concept of wellbeing within a ‘scale of indicators’ in such a way that it can be included in the analyses behind policy and funding decisions.

I had a similarly adverse reaction to the Social Capital Toolkit, a conceptual model that helps small organizations and community groups to evaluate their work so that they can identify what they do as measurable outcomes.  It helps them to gather evidence of their ‘added value’, to describe their work through the prism of performance, so that they can justify the worth of what they do. It is a way of bringing those on the fringes into the fold, adapting them to the parameters and conventions and identities and conversations of the status quo.

Fifteen years ago, even perhaps ten, I would have been an unswerving supporter of these tools. I would have been as keen in that meeting to develop a social impact framework as my colleagues at the table were yesterday, with a sense of David lining up pebbles to aim at Goliath. We’re going to get the people in charge to acknowledge what really matters. We’re going to change things for the better!! Now however I am in such a different place inside myself that I clutched the sides of my chair and dug my nails into it, clamping down on the shrieks of consternation that threatened to erupt from me. This is tinkering at the margins of a crushing, devastating machine of our own making. How can it make people’s lives better to translate their experiences into ‘evidence’?  How will it help anyone or anything to translate qualitative phenomena into the language of numbers and money? I hear Soul Asylum: “When the cause is lost you find there is no point in winnin’ ”

In all honesty, though, it’s not the meeting itself that distressed me, or the project and its aims. These were just triggers. It’s the sense that I need to do something with this, with my visceral reaction, and I don’t know what. I’ve been gently reminded about the mathematics of sharing ideas in meetings… I don’t feel that hopeful. My ideas are propelled by a destructive scrutiny that picks apart what other people have built. Somebody put time and effort into this project, and all I can respond with is ‘this feels like wrong dressed up as right.’

I’m reminded of another conversation, a while back now, in which I challenged someone’s assertion that an overseas development project – supplying farmers with capital and helping them to create smallholdings that conform to a market model – was a worthwhile endeavor. Like the toolkits I’ve described, the project was steeped in the mentality and rhetoric of business-as-usual: outcomes, performance, leadership, rewards. In me, again, a visceral reaction, a recoil, and a spluttering dismay at this mindset being peddled as a legitimate route out of our human predicaments:  I picked it apart with my destructive scrutiny, but did I have any better alternative to suggest in its place? I did not.

Do I have any better suggestions to offer? No – not practical ones. My suggestion is that we skip all these meetings and go out to the park and lie down under the trees and stare up at the leaves. Damn hippie.

Someone has recently drawn my attention to a quote by Ivan Illich:  “There is no time left for destruction, for hatred, for anger. We must build, in hope and joy and celebration.”  I understand the change of heart: letting go of anger, embracing joy. Destruction and building are where I’m stuck. Why set them against one another, as moral opposites?

Some of my friends would tell me to stop spinnin’ and rejoin the real world. Other friends would tell me to stop fighting with myself, to move out of my own way and get onto the fairy tale path where my heart and my gut are leading me. E would tell me that chasing rainbows is all well and good, sure,  but that just now she needs me there when she needs me, beside her and with feet on the ground. And I would tell me… well now, what would I tell me?

One thought on “On spinnin’

  1. Wellbeing… happiness, comfort, books, sense of security, safety, health, interests, people, books… I could continue gathering definitions and yet, I may not mention the very entity that engenders that sense of wellbeing in you, or me or E.. Such an individual, often transient state, constantly shifting, sometimes elusive, at other times completely overwhelming.
    Just as overwhelming as your visceral reaction at quantifying the qualitative. A reaction not at all surprising! How can we quantify wellbeing, love, or any sensitivity for that matter? Am I less happy or happier than you are, than yesterday, than ten years ago? Where is the reference point to measure against? What would I measure if there was that point anyway? How my happiness compares with the rest of the society?
    Institutionalised Happiness! Now that is frightening!
    Ivan Illich has warned against institutionalisation of education and now we seem to attempt the same with our sense of wellbeing.. Perhaps what you are experiencing is exactly what we all need to embrace: de-institutionalisation of society through conscious resistance of quantifying the qualitative.

    And staring up at the leaves sounds pretty good to me! I do it often! Let’s enjoy it without regret!

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