Can Well-Being Define What Government Does?

Author:Goldsmith, Stephen
Position:Commentary - Report

Santa Monica is convinced that it can and should let well-being define what its government does. It's putting a lot of effort into aligning services around that goal.

One of the most important questions a local-government official can ask is "why?" Government typically does today what it did yesterday. But what if local officials looked anew at their cities' goals and measured activities and results against those goals? Such a review might indeed lead to changes in the mix of current activities and identification of new ones.

Santa Monica, California, has started on one such path, asking whether what the city is doing is making a difference in people's lives. Santa Monica defined the goal of government as improving the well-being of its residents. The visionary behind this effort is Julie Rusk, who serves as the city's chief well-being officer. "It sounded simple," she said. "Define, understand and measure what matters most: how people are doing. There was just one thing. No one had ever done it before."

Inspired by possibility, the team began planning. Santa Monica's Well-being Project (wellbeing.smgov. net) was a winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies' inaugural Mayors Challenge ( with a proposal to collect data to measure well-being and use the results to restructure how government responds--to put money into activities that improve people's lives and stop funding things that make no difference. The city created an index of well-being ( about/wellbeing-index), plans to carefully measure the benchmarks and its progress towards the goals, and built a performance management system to support the effort.

So how do you define well-being? Santa Monica defined it as providing its residents with the ability to thrive while living a life of health, happiness, and meaning. While the definition might not be the same in every region or community, and not every city may decide to elevate well-being as Santa Monica has, the act of intentionally defining the goals of government and measuring progress against them should be a starting point for all leaders.

As Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole put it, "Government exists for a higher purpose than just providing specific services. Its ultimate goal is to help the people in the community thrive. And while well-being may not be a government service per se, it should be the outcome of the collective work of city employees."

What Santa Monica officials are...

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