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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Indicators, Targets, and Community Change

I was recently backtracking a discussion about online communities and measures of their strength -- how do you know when you have an online community, or how strong is the community of practice? It's an interesting question of indicators of community, subtly different from indicators of a community, and one that I'll save for a later post.

One of the discussions, however, triggered something for me that's particularly useful when dealing with traditional community indicators -- measures of the quality of life within a geography.

We look for key indicators -- sentinel indicators if possible, warning of problems in the community. Sometimes we add targets to those indicators -- we look at where we are and identify where we want to be, then galvanize the community to work together to reach that goal.

However, Shawn reminded me of a danger in that approach. If we're not careful, we can confuse the indicator of a problem with the problem itself -- and in that case, our "solution" may move the indicator but not address the problem.

Here's his analogy:

I’m not sure if the following analogy has already been drawn, but community indicators are like indicator species; they indicate the health of a the community/ecosystem. Green frogs are my favourite ecosystem example-albeit an inaccurate and imprecise one. If a green frog is an indicator species of a healthy ecosystem, introducing a gross of green frogs doesn’t improve the ecosystem’s health. The same is true of community indicators. These indicators help people inside the community understand and nurture their ‘environment’ but, please, please, please don’t turn them into management targets.

I think this analogy has tremendous implications for those of us reporting community indicators, and ought to be kept in mind particularly as we try to engage community indicators and government performance measures. We can't confuse the indicator with what we're trying to measure -- welfare reform, for example, didn't instantly lift half the people in poverty into a higher income bracket, it just removed them from the welfare rolls that may have served as a proxy measure of financial need in the community.

I'd love your thoughts on this issue, and how your community guards against mistaking the indicator for the problem. And I may start using the phrase "dumping frogs on the problem" to describe attempts to move the needle without addressing the real issues.


  1. How many green frogs should we dump in order to save the environment?

    A helpful book for people working in social services who struggle with the difference between a community indicator and a performance measure is Mark Friedman's Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough.

    He talks about the population referred to by a community indicator (e.g. all males ages 15-24 years old) and the clients included in a performance measure (e.g. every young adult who stayed in the program for 90 days)

  2. Thank you for the link to Friedman's site -- I'm adding it to the links page. It's a wonderfully succinct explanation I would encourage everyone to examine.