Community Indicators for Your Community

Real, lasting community change is built around knowing where you are, where you want to be, and whether your efforts are making a difference. Indicators are a necessary ingredient for sustainable change. And the process of selecting community indicators -- who chooses, how they choose, what they choose -- is as important as the data you select.

The Jacksonville Community Council (JCCI) understands indicators and community change, with more than 25 years of producing the annual Quality of Life Progress Report for Jacksonville and the Northeast Florida region, and two decades of helping other communities develop their own sustainable indicators projects. JCCI consultants give you the information you need to measure progress, identify priorities for action, and assess results.

I'd like to talk with you personally about how we can help. E-mail me at
ben@jcci.org, call (904) 396-3052, or visit CommunityWorks for more information. From San Antonio to Siberia, we're ready and willing to assist.


Friday, October 31, 2008

Rennes Conference, Day Two: Part Four

See the notes from Day One of the conference: part one, part two, part three, and part four; and Day Two of the conference, part one, part two, and part three.

The final session of the conference was a panel discussion, led by Yves Franchet, president of PEKEA. Overall, this was an excellent conference -- thought-provoking, inspiring, challenging. The global network around community indicators is strengthening substantially -- much had changed since I was in Rennes for the 2006 PEKEA conference. I'll share more of my thoughts as I reflect on what has happened.

Your thoughts and impressions of the conference are also welcome. I will also be posting the link to the conference web page at PEKEA as soon as they get the presentations and papers available online.

Update: Notes on the presentations added. Second update: The audience questions and the panel responses have been added.

Yves Franchet, president of PEKEA, moderated the discussion. Panelists were Ben Warner, JCCI/CIC; Mike Salvaris, professor from Melbourne, Australia; Gilda Farrell, Council of Europe; Michel Renault, Director of the ISBET-PEKEA project; Enrico Giovannini, OECD; and Alain Yvegniaux, Regional Council of Bretagne. We each had the same three questions to address:

  • How can we promote the analysis of societal progress at the local level?
  • What three recommendations can you offer to build together local indicators of societal progress?
  • How can we improve cooperation between the social actors and institutions working on this topic?

We had five minutes each to cover all three questions. Gilda Farrell went first:
I think we need to consider making a place for the development of non-institutional public policy; that is, public policy developed outside of the traditional institutions. We need to work with citizens, in such a way that all who participate take off their stakeholder hats and interact as citizens, thinking about the common good. We need to drop the hat of political partisanship and political specificities in order to reach consensus for action. We need to convince the people it's that important that we do so.

We need to ask open questions about what progress is all about. We don't need to ask closed questions that forbid our citizenry to express themselves clearly and freely. We need to encourage interaction between people from different horizons. We need to encourage exchanges so that we begin to see the issues differently, from multiple perspectives.

Question 3 is more difficult. Let me suggest thinking in terms of basic human rights, including rights to recognition, second opportunities, the right to take risks, right to project one's own life, right to expression, to be creative, to be respected, to live in human and humane cities, right to not be stressed, to manage one's own time, to not feel guilty because poor people live near you. Partnerships take time. We need to dare to co-construct public policies. We also need to make sure that we have the international level in mind; we need progress here that doesn't create problems in other places.

Ben (me) went next. We have heard the sayings, “You treasure what you measure.” “What gets measured, gets done.” There is power in creating indicators, the power of turning values into measures and shaping both the community agenda and creating accountability for action. In my community, we are careful in the words we use. Too often words acquire political meanings, are embraced or attacked for political reasons, and we lose the ability to create a community consensus for action if we are only re-opening the same arguments in which everyone has already chosen a side. Instead we talk about the overall quality of life, of building a better community. No one is against a better community. But as we talk about a better community, embedded in that conversation are notions of sustainability, of social progress. And all this is part of a larger picture, interwoven with questions of economic growth and civic accomplishment.

You build local indicators first by listening. In our community, we serve as the neutral convener, the safe place for open conversation about what's important. We do not convene people to tell people they need to follow our agenda – we don't have an agenda, except that we believe in the power of letting the people decide for themselves what is important to them and how they can achieve that future together. As you listen to the people, ask yourselves, who's not here? What voices are missing? What is not being heard? Then find a way to bring them into the conversation. The dialogue is not about just what college-educated experts think is important for a community; it must be open to everyone.

In a conference in Toronto, a woman from Pakistan challenged us to think differently. Not to have one person try to represent all people of the same gender, the same race or ethnicity, the same national origin. She said too often we draw lines – poverty lines, housing assistance qualification lines, etc. -- and that above that line one is a full citizen, but below that line one is marginalized into being only one's ethnicity. And these people are not the ones who draw the lines. Indicators projects are not about numbers. They're not about statistics. They're about people, and social change. Allow their voice.

How do you improve cooperation? By bringing everyone in at the beginning, by making the indicators project everyone's project. By being a trusted information source, agenda-free, where all the community look on the indicators as a community resource they can use in planning and policy-setting and decision-making across multiple community institutions. It is a shared understanding of the problem, rather than a prescription for a single solution. The policies come later; first we need to reach consensus on what the problems are. Publish the indicators annually so that they become part of the decision-making cycles of your institutions.

Alain Yvegniaux spoke next. The best way to promote societal progress is to use the opportunity to convince civil society we are in a multi-shaped shifting crisis. We are going through an exceptional series in time. We need to seize this opportunity. Think of the future generations.
Any indicator project needs to begin with a vision, at a minimum. We need to know what we want to quantify.

Participatory democracy looks different at different levels. You can't have the same level of participation on a regional level that you have at a neighborhood level. As you design the process of civic involvement, think about the constraints on participation created by the geographic scale of the process.

Indicators are useful for comparisons, but that's not just why we need them. Indicators are useful for evolving and improving the quality of public services and the quality of life. Indicators must be very open and lead to progress. In our experience, it took a longtime to understand that the indicators weren't just about sanctions and rewards, but was about creating change, and to do that the change had to be measured.

Mike Salvaris went next. The questions describe the three levels of creating an indicators project: understanding, construction, and implementation. Analysis should lead to action. We have to start by building in a reason to be involved. The indicators might be constructed around a common project – in Australia, the community planning process is enough of an incentive to get people involved in helping create the indicators. In other places, such as some places in Brazil, citizens are involved in creating the local budget. Or it might just be the belief that they will be taken seriously. In any case, they need to feel a reason to participate. Create the conditions for involvement. Involve the media. It may require education or capacity building. But citizens need a motive and a reason not to feel rejected.

We might take some thought about creating the common ground between actors. We need to develop a common language and common assumptions among all the people we ask to participate. In Australia, we have created a network across the state among our local indicators projects, and have linked to the national statistical systems who provide support for our local efforts.

Enrico Giovannini said hat we're not really interested in statistics per se. We don't develop these projects based on indicators. Indicators are a basic ingredient in a larger system that makes the system more effective. We need to begin with a theory of change, a model for change. Then we need a narrative, a story that captures the attention. We need to show the impacts of the project. We can't preach accountability without ourselves being accountable for the results of out efforts. And if we are about long-term sustainable change, we shouldn't rush into something. Take your time. Think a lot. Engage people. Look at the risks and the challenges. Then act.

This conference shows that we have a large and growing community of practice. There is a process going on. This opens a conversation that will continue through until Korea in 2009. Later next month we will continue the conversation in Strasbourg. Next year we will have a draft guide waiting for your inputs. We will continue the conversation at the CIC conference in the United States. We have 12-15 other events scheduled between now and Korea to engage people in this conversation. This is not enough.

We need to do more to build the community of practice. We are creating a WikiProgress where we can share both data and text. We are running training courses around the word. We are working on ways to visualize statistics and indicators. We will even be creating a FaceBook page to link people together. We need to connect together in this work.


Then we turned the time over to questions from the audience. I'm not sure I mentioned this before, but the structure of these panel discussions has been to hear a presentation from each member of the panel, then ask the audience for any questions or comments that they might have. After getting all the questions in, then each panel member is given a couple of minutes as both wrap-up and an opportunity to respond to any of the questions that had been asked. From a process point of view, the exchange was interesting.

So here were the questions:
Are local indicators enough to replace the GDP? And if not, how can we use local indicators to help move us towards a new global consensus on what we should be measuring?

We need to be pragmatic – it's just not possible to reach consensus on everything. But there's not just one way to understand general interest. We all where costumes of justification, masks if you will. We have a plurality of values. It is impossible not to have a clear opposition that will keep a consensus from being reached. We will have to create compromises instead. The compromise has to be managed politically, but not by politics. But that's why we need politics and a representative democracy, because participative democracy won't really work.

We need both a participative democracy and a representative democracy, but we alos need to reach a consensus. We're full of contradictions.

Consensus is but one way to approach the issue and to name the process. I think what we need can better be described as an inclusive synthesis, where we include all opinions and arrive at something built from the inputs of all the participants.

Civil society is part of the debate already. The dialogue between representative democracy and participative democracy is a healthy one and is underway. We can achieve what we want if we provide the space for conversation – that's what I liked about M. Warner's approach, a place where people can talk together on the same footing.

We need to start from a model of change and have a story to tell. But we need to recognize that we are coming from different countries with different situations, different ways of communicating with each other and different expectations on citizen participation. Now we're trying to work at a global level. I like the idea of talking with neutral words. The environmental crisis helps us think about the discrepancies in ou society.

Maybe we should start working on ethics and how we should live together. We need to trust local citizens – belive in them. They have solutions.

We are used to democracy based on compromise but nw we are moving to synthesis.

Panel members responded. Here are a couple of highlights from their responses:

Yes, we are going through an environmental and a financial crisis. But remember that the crisis of 1929 led to the New Deal in America – and the rise of Nazi Fascism in Europe. People respond differently to crisis.

We have a silent form of violence in society. Giving citizens a voice addresses the real conflicts – we need to quit silencing the people.

Instead of talking about the quality of life, perhaps we should be talking about he quality of living together.

Community indicators are, at their heart, accessible democracy.

Consensus building is the pragmatic approach. It's not theoretical. Jacksonville, Florida has been bringing people together to build consensus around hard topics for over 30 years. Te example of the consensus built in Jacksonville on race relations, where white supremacists and black activists could find a shared understanding of the issues facing the community, was a remarkable moment that suggests anything is possible.

With that, the session (and the conference) was concluded. Special thanks to the translators – sometimes hearing something I said in English that was translated into French and then responded to with a question asked in French and translated back to English was like the old telephone game – did I really say that? And the discussions were highly technical and specific, and a great deal of conversation revolved around the meaning of specific words. I was quite impressed with the ability of the translators, who appeared to be Rennes University students, to keep up.

If you were at the conference, what are your thoughts? It's easy to respond to this message by clicking below. If you did not attend, what are your reactions to the conversation? The transitions between the technical aspects and the philosophy of participative democracy were rapid and often unanticipated, but it kept the conversation rich on two separate levels – what we are doing and why we are doing it; the role of the expert and the role of the citizen; numbers and people. All in all, an exceptional conference, and I applaud PEKEA for putting it on.

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