For Governments, Happy Citizens are a Performance Metric

To understand how well a government is performing—whether it's federal, state, or local—ask how happy its citizens are.

To understand how well a government is performing—whether it's federal, state, or local—ask how happy its citizens are.

This blog post is an excerpt from our e-book, Happy Citizens: Measuring Performance in the Public Sector. You can download the whole e-book here.

When it comes to measuring performance, the public sector is under increasing pressure to become more like the private sector. Businesses publish quarterly goals and annual reports. They demonstrate actions and results. This outlook also dovetails with the ideal of a more transparent public sector.

It’s important to have a transparent public sector that communicates its goals and progress. However, the differences between the private and the public sector are often overlooked in this discussion.

Companies operate with shorter time horizons of monthly, quarterly, and annual goals. They report on revenue and profit generated and the costs required to achieve their aim. These are relatively straightforward measures.

When it comes to the public sector, measuring performance is much more complicated. A failure in a business’ performance can be measured by a reduction in profits or growth. The impact of a failure in public sector work—road safety, education policies, and public health programs—may not be measurable in monetary terms, but can have a major impact on people’s lives and livelihood.

In many ways, government policies are responsible for the happiness of the public. How, then, can happiness function as a metric for success?


Happiness Policy-making

In recent years, policy-making has had a greater focus on the effect on constituents’ happiness. This new approach to performance measurement in the public sector is largely propelled by the creation of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the launch of The World Happiness Report in 2012. The latest report from 2016 (pdf) ranks 156 countries by their level of happiness.

The research shows that differences in happiness across countries can be explained by six key variables: (1) income per capita, (2) healthy life expectancy, (3) social support, (4) freedom to make life choices, (5) generosity, and (6) the absence of corruption. The initiative has resulted in a worldwide demand for more attention to happiness as criteria for government policy.


What is Happiness?

The World Happiness Report shows that happiness is a complex topic influenced by a range of factors and circumstances, making it difficult—if not impossible—to quantify fully. Happiness is a central aspect of our lives, and much research is being done around the topic. The research falls within the field of psychology which traditionally has considered happiness as the absence of worry or anxiety. It wasn’t until the late 1990’s that the academic community started researching happiness on its own terms, and what leads to its presence. 

Two concepts of happiness emerge from the research: day-to-day happiness, and overall satisfaction with one’s life. These two types of happiness can be related, but don’t necessarily affect each other directly.

The public sector has the biggest influence on the happiness associated with the overall satisfaction with life. The next blog post in this series will begin examining the building blocks of this form of happiness—and what governments can do to foster it. 

Check back next week for Part II. Or, download the entire e-book now: