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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.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

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

Day Two Session Two
This session was entitled, “The Structure of Local Indicators.” Alain Yvergniaux, of the regional Council of Bretagne and of PEKEA, moderated the discussion.

Pierre Jean Lorens, from the Regional Council of Nord-Pas de Calais, began. Indicators have a threefold dimension: they deal with complex phenomena, they are based in quantification, and to be used they require simplification. Indicators are complex in themselves. The question of which indicators to use is anything but a scientific or technical question – it is a societal and a political choice.

The concept of indicators is useful if we want to challenge the notions of wealth and progress. Pyramid: The sustainable human development synthetic indicator; the bottom is 100 indicators of regional development. In the middle are sustainable regional indicators, then Lisbon-Gotebor indicators.

Why new indicators of development? GDP is being criticized based on what it tries to define and what it represents. But very often we don't talk about the uses of the GDP, especially as regards the comparisons we can do between regions and nations. This GDP comparison determines the distribution of financing by the nation, by the European Union. In this regard the need to work on new indicators to compare and to distribute public financing. This is why the Nord-Pas de Calais region began its work in indicators.

The regional efforts for local land planning works on 10-year timeframes, and the design phase of the program needs indicators and came much faster than we had planned in designing the vision for regional land planning. The indicators came upstream, not at the end. Second main origin: regional Agenda 21. The third point: a study taken to mainstream the work of all observing agencies. We worked to create the pyramid.

Gregory Marlier, also of the regional Council of Nord-Pas de Calais, took over to address the technical questions in developing the indicator set. The first indicator was the ecological footprint, measuring the relationship between resource consumption and land use. We would need 8 territories to meet the consumption use patterns of our region. We worked with the Wallonie region and others in developing other indicators/indexes on well-being. The second indicator was a modification of the Human Development Index. It includes life expectancy at birth, percent of the adult population with diplomas, and something else (I think it was personal income, but the slide flashed too quickly for me to capture it.) A third indicator was the participation of women in political and economic life.

A fourth indicator was named the BIP40 (French pun, as BIP=GDP, but in this case stands for Barometer of Inequalities and Poverty.) This barometer includes 6 dimensions: Education, Justice, Housing, Health, Income, and Employment. The intent is to get a multidimensional vision of poverty and inequities. We reduced the barometer to assess the poverty situation; again Nord-Pas de Calais is lagging behind the national average.

Objectives of the initiative were to interpret the different results and examine the way we measured all the elements. Soon there will be a published report on the BIP40 and it will be enriched by the participation of all the working groups.

Indicator of Social Health is another synthetic indicator that looks at the positive side not negative side. No correlation between GDP per capita and social health. 5 types of information at the top of the pyramid. This allows us to see how much our region is lagging behind and gives us opportunities to influence public policy.

Pierre Jean Lorens finished the presentation. We tried to take these indicators to regionalize them to get scientifically/technically/politically useful indicators, but don't know what the citizens think. Want to launch 2009 citizen conference to assess the work we've done with the citizens. We'll keep you posted because I think these instruments are interesting at a regional level.

Uses: allow us to measure the progress to more humanist sustainable development
awareness and facilitate public debate
fuels the debate – good encouragement

However, at different levels they also can be used to monitor and to pilot public policies. The notion of the ecological footprint is criticized a lot but it helps plan public transportation schemes. They aren't the only information in the debates, but they are useful. The indicators we are talking about have been taken up by the European Union and the Regional Council of the Nord- Pas de Calais region. We don't purport to be a model, but we have reached a certain level of truthfulness and usefulness in our program.

Boutard: Localized synthetic indicators experiments: retrospects and prospects
Indicators need to intervene at the beginning of the process to influence the process, not at the end. Aggregated indicators – I am an environmentalist by training, so why am I interested in social and economic indicators? Because they have strong/robust linkages. Look at GDP v. ecological footprint. No country manages to be both sustainable and economically developed.
Normative standardization and temporal standardization. Means giving a common scale to heterogeneous data. Even red-green code have to give a value to what is green and what is red.
Looked at values and compared territories. Based the values (between 0 and 1) based on observed differences between territories. Temporal standardization looks over time to develop standardization.

Tried to give a territorial dimension to international indicators. So then we looked at adapting international measures to meet the needs of the local realities.

Human development index. Three dimensions: health, education, living standards. Health measured by life expectancy at birth, education by adult literacy rates and rate of schooling, etc.
Once standardized, then it needs to be weighted. Look at upper and lower limits, divide out the differences and get a value. Computing HDI at local levels proves to be difficult. Sometimes the indicator loses its usefulness at a local level.

For local level work, modified the indicators and changed the limits to match local levles. Gives us finer mapping opportunities. Mapped down to neighborhood level. Does not allow annual updates because we depended on data that are not updated annually.

This work in France on comparative standardization leaves us asking, how do we assign technical legitimacy to the aggregated indicators we design? Now we need a wider population debate in a democratic fashion. What we heard this morning from the US is very promising. The way forward is to have a more democratic response to that.

Upper limits and lower limits led to a number of local debates especially among politicians. Now to friends from Belgium. Michel Laffut and Christyne Ruyters. Reducing presentation to spend more time talking about the issues raised yesterday and this morning. Today we want to introduce an effort we've been working on for the last two years in the Wallonie region. Plan for social cohesion tries to bring together all the tools e know about, brought together in a process. Constructing the indicators happened within a political and institutional context. Since the mid-1990s there's been a real effort to create indicators of poverty. We've been trying to move the debate from poverty to improving social cohesion.

Regional level, increasingly we see the implementation of schemes that promote both partnership and tie into the new process and idea of social cohesion.

The decree is to guarantee to all the access to fundamental human rights. Work on social, employment integration, health, access to housing, intergenerational links. For decree, first step was to create a synthetic indicator regarding access to fundamental rights. It was a good starting point and allowed us to create a financing ranking. Purpose of decree to promote networking and working in partnerships.

How should we measure social cohesion and social well-being?
Synthetic indicator for access to fundamental rights
Diagnosis of situation in cities compared to the region
Evaluate the results and assess impacts of these initiatives.

Michel, not much time so I'll be quick. Problems of indicators are three-fold: Defining it, measuring it, using it. Trusted the word of the experts in defining it. 6 fundamental rights in constitution, added 7 concerning the disadvantaged population. Created a certain number of indicators, 24 variables and then standardized the indicators, then created a family indicator, then aggregated to one synthetic indicator. Statistical validation tests to see if data we had was consistent with final indicator. The purpose of the synthetic indicator was not to compare cities, even though it had a ranking element. It was not to compare performances; we just wanted to understand the geographical nature of the problem.

When dealing with public policy, you have to deal with all the issues at hand. You can't ignore 5-10 percent of the population. You see minority populations and issues not dealt with in the general statistics/indicators/population.

Christine again. Tool gives diagnosis and influences policy and the goal is to create a different mode of measurement than we had available. In assessing results, we want to link it to the Council of Europe and apply the Council of Europe methodology on 20 cities and then extend it to the whole Wallonie territory so we can analyze social cohesion and redefine action plans as appropriate, and second axis to share what we have learned through implementation of this framework.


Belgium: very much interested in how you do things going from fundamental human rights to access is a unique approach. Legal experts usually aren't used to measuring the access to rights. How did you do it? How did you translate legal categories into indicators? This extends the field, extends the debate.

Localized approach to social progress using the United Nations approach. Did you use gender-specific data? Doesn't measure the element of gender discrimination without measuring gender-specific data.

Yesterday had workshop with not very many attendees. If create a workshop on something very specific. I lament the fact that all the work that has been carried out on gender-specific notions were not really dealt with because when you are building gender-specific indicators, if you blindly trust the indicators without wondering if they have political motivation, and not check the relevance of your indicators on a regular basis, you reach dead ends. For example, the school system lacks the political will to address these issues. Invisible work. Also helps the dominated population understand what their situation really is, they need to be aware that they are being dominated.

The HDI and HDI2 say different things about my region, and I challenge the meaning of the indicators because they don't capture very high or very low income people. The development of alternative indicators creates asymptotic development of social data, and there is a social development which is important which is dependent on growth and how healthy that growth is. This is a debate about the meaning of indicators, we're stuck in theories about growth and social data and we need to shed light on this to move forward.

Eight territories to meet “needs” -- not needs, meet consumption mode. US = 4-5 planets, Nord – Pas du Calais = 8 territories, seems worse – why?

Presentations raised political and technical questions, which was interesting. UNDP defined equality as women just like men with lower income – just giving them more income doesn't include the amount of nonpaid work and roles women play, and this needs to be taken into account. Plus we need to look at freedom and liberty, like in domestic violence which is quite high even in a country like ours, which needs to be considered if we really want to talk about equality and freedom. Freedom also includes access to the pill and access to abortion. This could be measured and mapped and included in our composite indicators.

One comment leading to a question: about how we build things together. Build indicators to fuel public debate which is bottom-up. Started in Belgium like in France – top down before going bottom-up, doesn't this create a framework which is very difficult to escape.

If democratic participation in building of indicators is so important, how can we encourage this culture of participation at a very young age? Is this something that we encourage? How do we teach young children to take an active role in a democracy? Shouldn't we define an indicator for that?

Question on social segregation indicators. Territorial segregation, take the 20 districts around Paris, the difference between the rich ghetto and the poor ghetto in the 18th district gets obscured. We have an issue with the availability of very fine data. We are prevented from using some data which makes us unable to address inequity at fine levels.

Why do you talk about how bad GDP is and how it doesn't correlate with social progress and then use monetary indicators in your composite indicators?

We haven't been talking about accountability. Without accountability, which is a political question, we can meet hundreds of times and talk about the same things.

Participants – respond to the questions?
These are questions we ask ourselves. It would be very ambitious to answer these questions in five minutes. When we go back to our cities and municipalities and talk with public officials who want to define progress, things start looking different. First we need to identify the link the between the objectives, the operational objectives, and public policy, and give the public officials the tools that they need. This is the context in which we must operate. If we keep waiting for the mythical perfect indicator we'll never make any progress. I'd rather be pragmatic.

One comment about indicators: whether we use indicators with a proven building methodology, or whether you design totally new indicators, they are always argued and discussed. That's the nature of indicators. In Belgium, we had a debate, but a debate between experts, of course. Not democratic participation. Let's be more concrete. Indicators are often asked for for a very specific use. In our case, people in government asked for a specific use – needed allocation of resources in a more transparent fashion. This was a step forward. We were taken on board and we were asked to build the indicator. The price to pay is that this was a very constrained context. The good thing is that we had the opportunity to introduce fundamental human rights and the important indicator of the null vote (voting is mandatory in Belgium, and the null vote measure wasn't being used.) There's no such thing as a GDP at a municipal level, which is another opportunity. Also, by introducing participation and deliberation, we can help municipalities develop data.

I'm concerned because I'm a zealot of participation and I want to include it in my work. I have learned patience. At a regional level, you don't work with participation, it's not in the culture. Start with what is possible, and that will open doors for us, and together we will build strategy. If this is an opportunity to combine participation with traditional efforts, let's go with it.
Gender-specific indicators, where there is little difference in the HDI. In the BIP40, we looked at gender differences, and we wrote about the lack of gender-specific data in a number of areas.
Correlations between GDP and ecological footprint: we're still very much a materialistic western civilization. This afternoon there will be a workshop that will deal with the ecological footprint and an inquiry into this issue, and a happiness indicator, and a life expectancy indicator.
Thank you for your answers.


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