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.

This is an archive of thoughts I had about indicators and the community indicators movement. Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Spartanburg, Indicators Reports, and Community Engagement

I like how the Spartanburg community came together to talk about the challenges raised in their new community indicators report. There's a video available at the site (I couldn't get this one to embed properly), but you may want to take a look at it.

The meeting raises the challenge all indicator projects must face: how do you move from reporting the problems to solving them? We know providing the data alone is insufficient to solving the problem (though may times it serves as a necessary precondition for action). We also know that, while indicators reports sometimes catalyze community action by raising the key issues of the community, more often than not the report itself highlights the problem, sparks a little conversation, and then (if left alone) people move on.

At the same time, no one organization can solve all the community's problems. We know that. But when we report on all the community's problems, and people ask us what we're going to do to fix them, we can inadvertently create expectations of problem ownership (especially if no one else is talking about the problem or is stepping forward to lead community action.)

So what do we do about it? Some thoughts follow:

I've suggested before that community indicators are one piece in an overall model for community improvement. I'll likely say it a few more times.

Right now, though, what I want to focus in on is the need for a credible, neutral source in the community that can take a bigger-picture view of the aspects of a community that contribute to good living/high quality of life/healthy/sustainable community (whatever your framework for describing what's important about where you life.)

Lots of people and organizations are working on issues. For each of these, the most important issue is the one they are facing today. Their voices, especially in a time of relative resource scarcity, keep getting louder as they fight for a place in community priorities and attention. Some people are more effective at being heard than others. Some become too effective in getting their message out until it becomes overkill and people stop listening -- there are only so many times you can hear that the sky is falling before you start resenting the calls for action. (Just check out the latest poll numbers on global warming -- the intensity and omnipresence of the message is spurring a backlash, and the weather isn't helping.)

In a worst-case scenario, people and organizations get so tied to a message that others actively shut out content and replace it with caricature. (Take PETA, for example -- they've done a pretty good job of alienating people from hearing a set of important ethical messages, in my opinion. Somewhere along the way they stopped sharing information and started looking like desperate folks who will do anything to get attention. Can anyone with a straight face tell me that their banned Superbowl ad helped advance community discussion? Or when exploiting women became OK if it was in the cause of not exploiting animals? OK, I'll stop ranting.)

The strength of a community indicators report is the ability, again in my opinion, to rise above the issue-specific turf wars and get people to see the community through a wider lens. This helps issues get framed as parts of overall systems. It demonstrates interrelatedness of problems. It tears down silos. It encourages collaborative action.

The temptation is to dive in on a particular issue and begin leading the charge. On the plus side, this issue may need a champion, and the community is looking at you already and wants to know what you are going to do about it. You can galvanize the community, you can with intentionality forge those coalitions. You can be the voice of the community and lead action to make things better!

The negative side to that is twofold. First, You dove into the pool. You became just another advocacy organization. From now on, your report will be viewed differently -- no longer above the fray, you're now talking about how everything relates with your issue. It changes how you are seen, and how your report is perceived.

Second, you've used your community capital on that issue. It will be twice as hard to try to tackle another issue. You're in the pool already, so can't dive in as the lifeguard to rescue another community problem with quite as much ease, especially since that problem is likely still hanging on to you for dear life.

Third, when you jumped in, others were free to stay out. They could go on with their lives, secure in the knowledge that you were taking care of the problem. You and they lost the opportunity to see who else could be a lifesaver. You took the pressure off the community and put it on yourself.

The good news is that a strong model of community improvement can keep you (and your community) afloat, even in tough times. I'll talk more about that model in another post. In the meantime, congratulations to Spartanburg (and to all the rest of you out there) for keeping those community conversations alive. The problems out there are too big for just one organization, even a really cool one that knows how to do indicators.


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