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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.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, October 31, 2008

Rennes Conference, Day Two: Part One

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

Good morning! The conference in Rennes opened today with my presentation. I've got my notes from this session that I need to type up and put here. In the meantime, I'm going to post the notes I do have available to share. [Update: Notes from my presentation are now available. Update: All notes now entered.]

So come back in a day or two to see what happened at this session. (Or post your own notes/comments in response to this session while you wait.)

My session was on "Les indicateurs communautaires aux États-Unis" (Community Indicators in the United States). I began by identifying three hats I was wearing at the conference: as Deputy Director of JCCI, a nonpartisan nonprofit think-and-action tank in Jacksonville, Florida; as a former president of the Community Indicators Consortium, a network of community practitioner organizations; and as the current president of the National Association of Planning Councils, a collection of social planning organizations in the United States that use social indicators to make community improvements.

JCCI has been publishing community quality-of-life indicator reports annually since 1985.

The local newspaper showed graphically the importance of what we do (click on picture to enlarge). They also wrote about the importance of our indicators work: "In some ways, the best news for Jacksonville is the [Quality of Life Progress] Report itself. The very premise of the report, and of JCCI, is the belief in Jacksonville as a community where the problems of some are the responsibility of everyone." This sense of community is at the core of our work, and of our model for community change.

Indicators are more than just numbers or interesting reports; they must be part of a theory of change, a model for community change, in order to be relevant and meaningful.

The use of indicators is not a new idea. Abraham Lincoln, former U.S. President, once said, "If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it …"

Community indicators projects exist across the United States. They measure indicators at one or more of several geographic levels:

  • neighborhoods,
  • cities or municipalities,
  • counties,
  • multi-county regions,
  • states,
  • and the nation.

From the experiences of these existing community indicator reports, we have learned a series of lessons about the importance of good indicator systems.

From California, we learn that indicators are part of a community's commitment to progress

In a time when our neighbors listen to elected officials or other established leaders and wonder who to believe, indicator reports serve as a civic-based tool to re-build this country’s social capital … our trust in each other, our willingness to find common vision and values, our engagement in collaborative civic work to solve problems that confront us. But most of all, they help to build a commitment to stewardship, to pass along to our children and grandchildren a country of many regions that are much improved over those left to us. Such commitment to progress is also a commitment to measure our progress … honestly and with open hearts and minds. This is the promise of the regional indicator movement in our state and our country.
-- Becky Morgan, Morgan Family Foundation

From Miami and South Florida, we see how indicators can be used to create a regional identity and forge connections.

From Sustainable Seattle, we learn that how we select the indicators is critical to success:

"The process of developing and selecting indicators is at least as important as publishing them. ... The process of debating the design of indicators shapes the players’ thinking about the policies. Agreement on indicators helps get agreement on policy." -Judith Innes

From Buffalo, New York, we see how indicators can build bridges across two countries, helping redefine community and support efforts to work together outside of political jurisdictions and boundaries.

From Pittsburcgh, Pennsylvania we see how the right indicators can be important tools in making good decisions and shaping public policy.

From St. Louis, Missouri, we learn how indicators are part of a policy-making process, open to community accountability and input:

"RegionWise is committed to reducing the gap between what we know and what we do. It seeks to be part of a continuous regional improvement process in which practice informs research, research informs public policy, and public policy informs practice. To this end, RegionWise builds bridges and facilitates interaction between service providers, policy makers, and researchers – to frame research questions and processes, interpret data, articulate its practical implications, identify indicators of progress, and champion change." --Richard Kurz, Chair

From Boston, Massachusetts, we can see how indicators can be used to take action, and how to scale indicators from the neighborhood to the multi-state regional level.

From Orlando, Florida, we learn how indicators can monitor community progress toward shared goals and priorities.

One final thought:

"Indicators a society chooses to report to itself about itself are surprisingly powerful. They reflect collective values and inform collective decisions. A nation that keeps a watchful eye on its salmon runs or the safety of its streets makes different choices than does a nation that is only paying attention to its GNP. The idea of citizens choosing their own indicators is something new under the sun – something intensely democratic. " -- Kent E. Portney

There are indicator systems in communities all across America. This is a sampling of what we can learn when we network together and learn from each other.

After my presentation, Enrico Giovannini commented that the concept of nested indicators – indicators that can be measured from the neighborhood level up to the national and multinational – is an ambitious goal. He urged the conference attendees to keep in mind the notion of a “model of change” as a context within which indicators should be developed, because indicators are only one ingredient in a larger process.

A question he wanted to have addressed later was that of the sustainability of the project – setting up an indicator project is one thing, but maintaining the project over a number of years is even more difficult. (I get asked this question everywhere – I'm interested to note that this is an international problem, not just a problem in the States. I'm going to suggest a session on this question for the next conference of the Community Indicators Consortium.)

The next presentation came from Brazil. Eufran do Amaral is the Secretary of State of the state of Acre in Brazil; he spoke in Portuguese, which was translated into French by Andre Abreu, which was then translated into English for my benefit by the translators. My notes will reflect my understanding of the presentation from both the Portuguese, which I still understand from my time in Brazil, and the English translation of the French. Andre Abreu represented the France Liberty Foundation, as did the third speaker on their project, Danielle Mitterand.

Mrs. Mitterand is the widow of François Mitterrand and the president of the foundation France Libertés Fondation Danielle Mitterrand. She looked (and sounded) remarkably vibrant for being 84 years old! Wikipedia (which has a nice picture of her) has a quote from her from the 2005 European Constitution referendum in France: "I denounce the power of the economy over people, a system that turns individuals into elements in an economic equation, does not respect the poor and excludes everyone that does not live up to the principle of profitability." I add all this in to show the respect the group had for her being there.

Mrs. Mitterand spoke first. We have made a choice to build a different world. We have a software presentation to show you – we will not use the term “PowerPoint,” so we will just call it a software presentation. France Liberty is about choosing a society that allows people human rights, and about taking responsibility for changing conditions. All of the experience we are having in working to create a better society is coming together. We could talk about Brazil, about Africa – the whole world is changing. We need to think about the limits of the system We need to use the new data and new indicators in our experiences around the world.

Andre Abreu added some background. This is a story of a small state in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, on the border with Peru. Acre wasn't part of Brazil until about 100 years ago, when they fought for that right. When Acre became part of Brazil, lots of people came in to harvest rubber. The indigenous people, and those who moved to Acre for economic opportunity, were at the mercy of large farmers, which mainly produce cattle, soy, and ethanol. Progress was defined in a traditional way of thinking – what has value is what can be sold. In the 1970s there was a new way of thinking that emerged, coming from the trade unions – we can stand up for our rights, we can live with the forest instead of cutting down the forest. The future of the Amazon is not, should not be, soy, cattle, or rubber.

This group achieved political power in the 1980s, and immediately started having trouble with farmers. Chic Mendes was murdered horribly in 1988. His death led to a feeling in the population that enough was enough. A new type of democracy started emerging. At Rio Branco, a new popular government was elected, called the Government of the Forest. They had a powerful message: The forest must be protected. We can harvest nuts (Brazil nuts) and rubber without destroying the forest. We must create a sustainable economy. The Popular Front government has been working for 10 years with left-wing forces, but they have installed democracy in the region. They have changed the social dynamics. They have created community councils and councils of citizens. However, the data and indicators are still very bad.

Acre has the worst human indicators in the region, and as a result are stigmatized by financial institutions, and by the IMF. Together we asked, why is there no development, no evidence of progress in Acre? Why are the indicators so poor? Acre started designing economic zoning and mapping to understand the state and from this mapping realized they needed new indicators to measure well-being and progress. The local economy was based largely on an informal economy, and monetary income was very low and had a much smaller role in the local economy, so why were we measuring progress only according to monetary income?

In 2006 Acre met with France Liberty to discuss alternatives, and we designed a new system. We set up an international working group to identify measures of well-being for the population of the Amazon region. We wanted to measure sustainable well-being. Too often we talk about poverty being the problem, and the solution is that poor people have to become rich and consume more – this is the traditional vision that we have, and this model is happening all over Latin America, and the costs of raw materials and food are skyrocketing, and this is continuing to increase power to these large landowners. They benefit from this policy, and as the price for raw goods increases, they expand further into the Amazon rainforest.

This is a crucial moment for the region. For the future of the forest, these initiatives are key. We are working on this project through 2010; the neighboring states of Mato Grosso and Rondonia are prosperous, and income per capita has risen quite a bit, but in the process they have created a “green desert” with monocultures of soy as far as the eye can see, with significant impacts on water resources. People are forced from their land and give up their subsistence farming to work the farms of the large landowners, working in unacceptable working conditions. We need to measure the negative impacts on the environment. We cannot accept this as a model for progress. But this is what happens when the only indicator you use is income per capita.

Eufran do Amaral continued the presentation. We have been through 100 years of struggle, and the last 10 years have been fighting to save our forest. Until the 1980s the Amazon was under a basic development model, which meant cutting down the forest to create these farms. We asked, what do we mean by the term, Quality of Life? This is the sum of the economic, environmental, scientific-cultural, and political. We have to start locally, with the local community. We could destroy our future in order to increase GDP and create permanent losses for future generations. None of the destruction shows up in the measure of GDP. Income could increase if we destroyed our forest, but it would be illusory progress.

We are not talking strictly about environmental preservation. We have to address poverty. But we think these are on the same side of the same coin. Sustainable development means addressing both poverty and the environment. We want to create organized and dynamic communities with a fair distribution of wealth.

We did mapping and regional scanning. We saw three modes of living: living in the forest, which the indigenous people do, as part of the natural ecosystem; living off of (or from) the forest, which is an economy based on extracting resources from the forest; and living with the forest, taking the forest into account in all we do and living in harmony with it. The problem is that we needed alternative data and indicators, a new index to support a new vision of progress.

(I hope this presentation is made available on PEKEA's website. It's really quite good, and I'll have difficulty reproducing the diagrams.)

Picture a tree – at the roots see the project, and then reaching upwards through goals, indicators, results, areas of results/outcomes, strategic objectives, and vision. The intent was to create indicators to measure all of our community's wealth: social, cultural, economic, and environmental.

Enrico Giovannini commented that the presentation clearly demonstrated that indicators were not just an important tool for developed countries, but even a more important tool for developing nations.

Mike Salvaris then spoke. Citizen-based progress is a global paradigm. We can change the paradigm for a democratic government. We need participatory action and research and community deliberation.

Here are some of the links between citizen engagement and social progress:

  1. Defining progress is the responsibility of citizens
  2. The development of democracy is part of the meaning of social progress
  3. Healthy democracies increase well-being
  4. Social progress means better governance
  5. Engaging citizens strengthens their democratic capacity

The UNDP Human Development Report set out as its goal the end of the mismeasurement of progress. This is our important goal today. In Plato’s Republic, Thrasymachus comments that “‘just’ or ‘right’ means nothing but what is in the interest of the stronger party”. Thomas Hobbes believed “the most powerful instrument of political authority is the power to give names and to enforce definitions”.

Mike followed that up with a series of quotes that make the point nicely. I'll give you all the ones I could capture.

Hazel Henderson said, “Statistical indicators are the structural DNA codes of nations that become the key drives of economies and technological choices. Democratising such powerful tools as indicators of human progress and sustainable development is essential to empowering citizens.”

Victor Sidel: “Statistics are people with the tears washed away.”

Albert Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Raymond Bauer: “Social indicators enable us to assess where we stand and are going with respect to our values and goals, and to evaluate specific programs and determine their impact.”

To measure social progress, we need a theory of what makes a good society. Moreover, democratic society needs shared realities to progress.

“The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it.” -- Edward Dowling

We need to be able to audit democracy, to measure whetehr or not we are living up to our democratic goals. I wish I had the political cartoon Mike shared: on one half of the panel, a scene from the recent summer Olympics, as the crowd cheered when a swimmer broke a record by 0.00001 seconds; on the other side, someone stating that the estimated civilian deaths in Iraq were between 13,000 and 60,000. It was a stark commentary on how we measure what we value.

How do Australians rate their democracies? Mike shared some survey data on rating democracies, and added we need to identify the concepts of what we believe make a healthy democracy in order to be able to measure it. Now IDEA has an international tool for measuring democracies.

Human rights and democracy are part of the meaning of progress and well-being, and are contributors to progress and well-being. They need to serve dual roles in how we conceptualize progress, as both inputs and outputs.

A recent WHO report, “Closing the Gap,” says, “Inequities are killing people on a grand scale.” We can look at national well-being and other progress indicators, and see how important human rights are as a measure of well-being.

Citizens are more than customers of government. They are partners in achieving public outcomes. To be legitimate, social indicators require the explicit involvement of citizens.
We should also look to the Asian societies and their approach to well-being. The recent conference in Thailand on Gross National Happiness brings a convergence between Eastern and Western thought on measures of well-being and progress, and dovetails nicely with the OECD approach.

Albert Einstein: “We should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organisation of society.”

Enrico Giovannini commented: The key ingredient is that we are not alone. Not only are we not alone in this work, we are all headed in the same direction.

Questions from the audience included these:

  • How can we have a theory of a good society based on a common good, if it's impossible to have a common good without sacrificing the individual?
  • M. Warner challenges us with a new definition of community. How can citizens become involved in building the indicators? Do you look for representatives from organizations? Who should be involved? What's the methodology for involvement?
  • How do you reconcile different points of view on what makes a good society? Do you use a proportionate approach or a majority vote?
  • The Brazil approach has huge promise. You dared to build a vision. Vision is at the heart. Without vision you produce merchandise but not well-being.
  • In Brazil, social struggle led to political change, which led to developing the framework for indicators. Where do we start? Do we need political upheaval first?
  • Some citizens have not embraced the current model of progress. They just want more than their neighbors. How can we deal with the destruction of the natural environment and social environment when people have these mindsets?

The panelists responded to the questions -- I emphasized sustainability through partnerships and getting results, answering Enrico's question, and open citizen access to the indicators process, trying to allay fears about citizen involvement by letting people know that in practice, no one wants a bad environment, and people really want to be involved and to be heard. Not as representatives of organizations, but as people, citizens of a community.

The other panelists said inspiring things that I forgot to write down. And with that, the session ended.


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