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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Community Indicators and the Visioning Process

I've been busy with the SA2020 community visioning exercise for San Antonio, Texas and we just moved into the part of the process where the community is engaged in developing indicators to measure progress towards reaching their community vision.  

Two of the youth participants at the last forum.
The shirts say, "My voice was heard. SA2020"

I received a good comment back from the exercise, and thought I might share the answer I provided with you for your comment and discussion.

I was glad to participate in my third SA2020 event. This time I found that the process was ahead of where it should be. We were instructed to develop measures for determine how visions were being realized. Since visions are not concrete, I found this difficult. There should be a step of designing strategies for bringing visions into reality. These strategies can and should be measured. I love participating in the very worthy SA2020 process. Thank you for considering my opinion.

Here's my response: This is a good comment, and there’s a critically important reason why community indicators need to be used at this point in the process, prior to the development of strategies.

Indicators operationalize the vision statements; they take the abstract notions of community well-being and clarify them with specific measures of the intended/desired outcomes. These outcome measures then serve as a framework within which strategies can be constructed. This allows the strategies to proceed with the end in mind and focus those efforts on important aspects of the quality of life. The measures also allow for an upper-level evaluation of the effectiveness of the strategies in influencing the vision statements.

With the indicators in place, strategies can be developed – and when strategies are developed, they should be accompanied with specific process and performance metrics. The use of measures at this stage of the process does not remove the need for measurements for each of the action steps, which [the commenter] is right to observe. However, we have often seen communities that focus entirely on performance measures for specific strategies to determine whether the action was completed as desired without taking the next step to see if the outcomes of that strategy accomplished the overall purpose of moving the community closer to its desired vision. For example, No Child Left Behind was created with concerns about all students receiving a quality education. One strategy to advance the purpose of quality education was to implement at the state level a set of standardized tests, and additional actions were built around those test outcomes. Because many of the states focused directly on one strategic initiative (standardized testing) and the metrics embedded within it, too often the larger picture (quality education) was forgotten as curricula, school year start times, retention policies, and other initiatives were developed in response to the strategy (instead of focusing on the overall goal).

So [the commenter] is right – we need specific metrics tied to strategies. But we also need, to balance out the picture and keep us focused on why we selected those strategies in the first place, a constellation of measures tied directly to the vision statements themselves. In this fashion, we preserve both accountability and focus. 

How would you have answered that question?


  1. The only concern with this approach is the risk that participants will select only indicators that exist or that seem possible to measure and therefore will limit the range of possible strategies. I would argue for an intermediate stage between vision and indicator that allows to better understand what is possible in order to understand what and how to measure.

  2. Interesting observation. It does raise the point about getting the "right" indicator in place. Is the process focussing on the final outcomes or state that are embedded in the vision? Favorite example is the appears that we all want to reduce it - or do we? Do we not actually want more people to use alternative means of travel that are more carbon neutral? With the recent economy we have seen a small drop in carbon from vehicular emissions - not so great when you study the numbers in greater depth and realize that most of that drop is accounted for by seems that indepth conversations around the desired outcome can inspire appropriate strategies and their measurement, don't you think?

  3. A fascinating paper.
    I love reading your writing
    I got a lot of input
    thanks and encouragement to keep writing.

  4. interesting observation. It does raise the point about getting the right
    in place. Thank you for posting :)