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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.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, February 27, 2009

State of the USA and 1,000 Points of Data

The State of the USA has responded to the New York Times editorial calling for a national indicator program. That's a good thing, because I'm a big fan of the work they've been doing, and I'm getting pretty excited about their official launch, scheduled for some time this fall.

Chris Hoenig, President and CEO of The State of the USA, writes:

In response to a growing call for new ways to achieve shared understanding, increased transparency and improved accountability, a new dialogue is unfolding among Americans and in the media about how to measure the performance and progress of our society. The State of the USA’s mission is to help Americans better assess the progress of the country. We aim to provide key national indicators on the Web as a public service, bearing on major issues ranging from health and the economy, to education and the environment. In the next few months, we will begin by publishing data on key national health indicators, followed by a steady progression of information on other issues. This is a daunting task, which will take some time to accomplish. A working partnership between the public and private sectors will be central to accomplishing this mission.

As a private, non-profit organization dedicated to free information dissemination in the public interest, we rely in particular on working with the people and the products of the U.S. federal statistical system. Without them, we and thousands of other institutions like ours would be unable to make our contributions to better informing the American people. Our role as a private institution allows us to perform an important function that government cannot: combining in one place both public (i.e., official) statistics from federal sources as well as the best quality data from other organizations – commercial, state or international. It is also possible for us to be more selective in our choices of measures that are especially important for Americans to focus on. To do this in a responsible fashion, we rely on an editorial process with a variety of inputs – from polling research and public workshops run by America Speaks and Westat, to expert advice from institutions such as the National Academies. (The National Academies is the umbrella organization for the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.)

Conversely, there are vital functions that public institutions, like the Federal government, have a unique ability to provide to help Americans assess the progress of the nation. These go beyond the tremendous service of managing the nation’s multi-billion dollar statistical system – the lifeblood of so many decisions in our democracy. From the moment of the State of the USA’s founding, we have encouraged the federal government to create a key national indicator system to ensure that Americans get even better access to valuable data on the changing nature of American society. (The State of the USA engages in limited advocacy on behalf of an independent key national indicator system, which is allowed under the Internal Revenue Service code and governed according to the respective policies of its funders.) Such a system has been recommended to Congress by the GAO, and recent media coverage has highlighted growing bipartisan support for the Key National Indicators Act – a bill to be introduced by Senators Edward M. Kennedy and Michael Enzi. This legislation would establish a bi-partisan commission to create such a system. The commission would then charge the prestigious National Academies with the task of creating and managing the system.

Ever since its founding, America’s democracy has grown and strengthened when the best of the public and private sectors are brought out in appropriately constructed partnerships. As we have also seen recently, it can weaken when these partnerships are neglected or poorly constructed. The historical lesson is not to avoid them or ignore them, but to design and manage them well. It is our greatest hope that, should the Key National Indicators Act be enacted into law, we and many other public and private organizations can make contributions to such a partnership in the interest of the American people and future generations.


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