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.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Community Engagement and Civic Indicators

I was reading David Brown's "Citizen-Centered Democracy" interview with Matt Leighninger (of Everyday Democracy and the Deliberative Democracy Consortium) found in Kettering's recent (2009) Higher Education Exchange, and I began thinking about the role and importance of community indicators in both facilitating meaningful civic engagement and in measuring the extent and effectiveness of that engagement.

In the interview, Leighninger (speaking of his book, The Next Form of Democracy) says:

"Different communities will come up with different frameworks for the relationship between citizens and government. But the question of how they know where they are headed, and (perhaps more importantly) how they know they are making progress, is a major challenge for the field. Right now, in most instances, communities and public agencies fail to measure how they are doing with public participation. We need systems that will help people track the quantitative kinds of information -- how many people participated, how diverse and representative they were -- along with more qualitative kinds of data -- what did the participants and the decision makers think of the process, what kinds of tangible changes resulted, and so on. This kind of tracking and measuring ought to be easier now, with all the online technology we have at our disposal, but I haven't yet seen an online system that does all this. Without these kinds of information loops, it is harder for communities to figure out where they are going and how they might get there faster." [emphasis added]

This intrigued me for multiple reasons.

First, I strongly believe that successful community indicators systems must be built on public participation. Absent meaning civic dialogue in determining a shared community vision and consensus in the kinds of information needed to track progress towards that vision, indicators become merely another academic exercise. Community indicators need to be of and from the community, not just for and about the community.

Second, part of our measures of a community ought to include the civic health of the community. How involved are citizens in governance? Are they successful? Do they feel successful? I disagree that counting noses at public meetings is a necessary or even useful indicator, but it is a start. I'd appreciate further conversations that would pick up where the National Civic League's Indicators of Civic Health project left off. To some extent, the current efforts toward bridging community indicators and government performance measures are leading to redefinitions of citizen involvement in community governance, but often in a round-about way -- we probably ought to be more intentional about that conversation and more precise in what we measure.

Third, I suspect that we have some difficulty at times in the field of community indicators bridging community-oriented public dialogue principles and skillsets with data-driven measurement and research capacities -- it's uncomfortable to recognize that we need to bring together both data people and people people in order for our work to make a difference. Balancing the competing needs for data excellence and community conversation (which is often much messier and much less quantifiable) is a challenge that will undermine our work if we're not aware of the tensions and plan our engagement processes accordingly.

I found Leighninger's response to the question of "professionalization" particularly intriguing. (You may remember Ken Jones leading a similar discussion at the 2005 joint Community Indicators Consortium/National Association of Planning Councils conference in Washington, D.C.)

Leighninger said:

"Professionalization is both promising and problematic for us. Right now, there are virtually no barriers to entry in this field -- it seems like all you need to set up shop as an expert on democracy is some free time and a Web site! There's a sort of excitement to that, and it may encourage various kinds of innovation, but at the same time it makes it very difficult for the prospective employers (public managers and other kinds of leaders who need help working more intensively with citizens) to find the right prospective employees (either job candidates for permanent positions, or nonprofits and consultants for temporary projects) who have the right skills and experiences to be effective.

"We need certain aspects of professionalization: a more unified sense of the main principles that undergird the field; stronger degree programs (in disciplines like public administration) that prepare students to engage citizens more productively; and greater awareness of the main organizations, models, and techniques. But we need to retain some antiprofessional qualities as well: the sense that at least some of the basic skills you need to do this work can be learned fairly quickly by committed amateurs without formal training; a shared understanding that your mindset and attitude toward citizens is at least as important as the skills and experiences you bring to the job; and the flexibility to continue adapting models, methods, and principles, so that shared learning is one of the most prized tenets of the field."

I found myself in wholehearted agreement, especially as I considered how this applied to our field of community indicators. I'd appreciate your thoughts and comments on what you think this means to our work.

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