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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Involving the Public in Public Performance Measurement

I'm headed up tomorrow to the Second Annual Public Performance Measurement and Reporting Conference being held up at Rutgers University in Newark. I'll be speaking Friday afternoon on "Citizen Engagement in Community Benchmarks: Lessons Learned from The Jacksonville Community Council."

If you're going to be at the conference, be sure to say hello. For those who can't attend, I plan on sharing my notes and impressions with you in this blog, and will try to find others to share notes from the sessions that I can't attend.

We've been working on reporting indicators for some time now in Jacksonville -- next week we will release our 24th annual report on the Quality of Life in Jacksonville -- and we've helped quite a few other communities develop their own indicators systems. From that, I suggest we've learned some valuable lessons. I touched on some of them briefly at the National League of Cities Congress a couple of months ago, but one thought in particularly is on my mind this morning.

Simply put, good data are not enough. The best indicators in the world are irrelevant at best (and damaging at worst) without the right kind of process behind them. And this is doubly true for public performance indicators.

In a former career, I studied to be a therapist. With one of my earliest clients, I was excited to recognize the pathologies, diagnose the problem, and relay the answer -- all in the first session. I felt on top of the world -- this therapy stuff was easy -- and reported back to my supervisor. He smiled and remarked on my adorable mix of naivete and stupidity. The point of therapy wasn't about the therapist knowing what the client had to do differently; it's about the client owning the solutions, and that happens through a process of discovery, not being told what to do.

I see the same dynamic in government performance benchmarking and citizen engagement. Some internal performance measures are critical for administrative purposes. You need to be paying attention to who shows up for work in order to pay them, for example. But that's a management process, not an accountability process.

Citizen engagement is critical for community feedback into what matters (where are the priorities?), and community confidence in government activities (are they doing what we need them to be doing?) Government telling the community what's important and announcing what they will measure and what the results are feels somewhat like my initial foray into therapy -- it doesn't mean anything unless I've had the opportunity to be part of the process of discovering the answers.

Let me try another metaphor. At our organization, we have a team of auditors go over our books every year and report their results to our board. It's easier (and cheaper) for us to look at our books ourselves, and then tell the board that we think everything's fine and our internal financial controls are just peachy. That may be the absolute gospel truth, but it's completely irrelevant to the board (and they will likely trust us even less the more we insist we handling the money just fine.) Accountability requires, at some level, external review of the information, and someone outside the organization asking the questions.

So to summarize, why is citizen involvement in government performance measures so important? For one reason, people need to be involved in the process to make it their own, otherwise the exercise lacks essential meaning. For another, community confidence depends on being able to ask the right questions and trust the answers, and trust usually involves someone else reporting the information. Those aren't the only reasons, by a long shot -- just the ones that I was thinking over this morning. (You'll have to attend my session on Friday, or wait until I write it up and post it, to hear the others.)

That's why, as uncomfortable as it gets sometimes for everyone involved, our work with our local government entities in reporting government performance as part as an overall picture of the quality of life in our community is so important. It's connecting the citizenry to government, and government to citizens, that makes the reporting a true measure of accountability and progress.

We need to do more locally. We know that. But we can build on the layers of trust we've built over time to make good benchmarking even better.

What are your thoughts?


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