Measuring how people feel their lives are progressing
The Prime Minister speaking at the start of the first Cabinet meeting since the election said “It is absolutely vital that every decision we take, every policy we pursue, every programme we start, is about giving everyone in our country the best chance of living a fulfilling and good life.”
The ‘good life’ has a rich political and philosophical history - Aristotle and Plato wrote about it and the concept has been revived in recent years as governments have turned their attention to developing measures of social progress to complement traditional economic dashboards. In the UK we are now regularly measuring how satisfied people are with their lives, and how fulfilling they feel their daily activities are. But what can policy makers do to create the right conditions to help people – and can we evaluate the impact?
Community First Neighbourhood Fund - communities acting on their priorities
One of the ways we can create the conditions for people to live good and fulfilling lives is by delegating power and resources to communities . Community action sits at the heart of this agenda; it involves giving communities the tools and resources they need to take action, together, on the things that matter to them.
Since the beginning of the last Parliament, the Social Action Team in Cabinet Office has invested over £110m in government funding in a suite of community action programmes which use different levers to encourage people to take action. The team has worked with local authorities to galvanise their populations through Cities of Service and they have recruited 6,422 Community Organisers to support residents to take action.
The Community First Neighbourhood Match Fund is another example. It's a £30m small grants programme to support, enable and empower people to take action on the issues that matter most to them. Local people have been deciding which projects to fund in 594 wards in England since 2012-13. For the programme as a whole neighbourhood panels have now made around 18,000 project recommendations, totalling £27m in funding. This funding has been matched by an estimated £94m worth of local contributions, including 5 million volunteering hours.
The fund has now closed but what have we learned about community priorities? What type of projects did they grant funding to?
Well-being is a priority for communities
We have used text mining software to analyse short descriptions of around 16,000 of the funded projects - drawing out common types of projects around frequently recurring keywords to get a broad sense of what communities have prioritised. The table below gives a picture of the types of project and there's a strong well-being feel about it. Activities include social events to connect neighbours, community learning, physical activity and sport, creativity and the arts, and improving the local living environment. Targeted activities to support families, younger/ older people and vulnerable groups are also popular. Cutting across these projects is community volunteering which has helped to deliver them all. Volunteering is also associated with enhanced well-being.
In a survey by Ipsos MORI (the independent evaluators for the programme) those running projects were asked to categorise themselves by the main issues that they were focussed on. A large proportion of projects responded that they were working to help members of the community improve aspects of their life, predominantly around health and well-being (62%) and education and skills (53%). Two thirds (67%) of projects said they were working to connect people together, with just over half (56%) saying they were working to encourage people to get involved. This also highlighted the potential impact funded activity might have had on increasing volunteering and social action.
So it's clear from this programme that deprived communities can, with relatively light-touch support, organise themselves to make decisions on funding local projects, and that for this programme in particular, community well-being has been a priority, as has encouraging people to get involved and to volunteer.
This raises the question about whether we actually see an uplift in well-being and volunteering in the areas in which panels have operated. We've analysed this in our next blog.
 Research has shown that putting local areas in control, particularly of budgets, can have a beneficial effect on well-being - Decentralisation outcomes: a review of evidence and analysis of international data, Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, Newcastle University, and Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics (DCLG, 2011).
|Community First Projects||No.|
|Projects, clubs and activities for young people - including supporting Brownies, Guides, and Scouts||2078|
|Community Assets – equipment and facilities||1116|
|Activities to support parents, children and families e.g. play sessions, improving play areas||1114|
|Community events, festivals, carnivals, parades, family fun days, street parties and celebrations||1104|
|Employment support e.g. jobs search, training, computer/ internet access and volunteer placement||1039|
|Health & Well-being activities for older & vulnerable people e.g. fitness, exercise, bowling, social activities||910|
|Supporting local allotments and gardens - community projects to grow food, fruits and vegetables||763|
|Trips and outings, lunch clubs and social activities particularly for the elderly||679|
|Resident, neighbour engagement and consultation events to develop and improve areas||673|
|Community music, choirs, film, theatre, drama; workshops and performances||644|
|Community sport particularly projects to support football, cricket and rugby teams||622|
|Information, advice and support services for vulnerable groups particularly money, debt and benefits||620|
|Community training, courses and sessions to learn life skills - arts, craft, cookery, sewing, knitting etc||508|
|Food education and cooking skills and emergency food provision||429|
|Community arts projects - workshops and exhibits||417|
|Out of school and summer holiday schemes for young people||393|
|Clean and improve area planting by flowers, trees, shrubs and hanging baskets||388|
|Parks and Community Gardens - improving green spaces and engagement with greenspaces||375|
|Projects and schemes to reduce anti-social behaviour||358|
|Library projects e.g. bookshares, heritage and history - research, stories, exhibits and photographs||335|
|Classes and activities to support the health and well-being of women||327|
|snipDance clubs, classes and competitions particularly for children||306|
|Christmas markets and decorations, and events to bring residents together||287|
|Environmental projects particularly litter picks to clean area and recycling. Cycle rides and schemes.||265|
|Activities to support carers and disabled people||206|
|Crime and Safety; Neighbourhood Watch and resident groups; newsletters, news and information||169|