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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.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, August 18, 2009

Benchmarking and the Invisible Factors for Success

Here's our good friend Dilbert, on benchmarking:

That's an ... interesting definition. But it's a starting point to talk about the problems with indicators and comparisons.

It's amazing how much history, personality, past decisions, key individual leaders, social structures, civic involvement (among people and different types of community institutions), legacies, traditions, and a thousand other factors influence the success or failure of community improvement efforts. Pick a topic -- teen pregnancy, high school graduation rates, economic self-sufficiency, crime prevention -- we've had a thousand communities wrestle with these problems and have their combined experiences to draw upon.

So we know something about what has worked (and what hasn't) in some places and for some issues. But implementing the same program/process/policy in a different place often leads to less-than-expected outcomes.

I suspect the art of community improvement has to be informed by the data, the research, the combined experiences of those who have had success and those who have not. But the factors that lead to success often remain left out of our narratives -- the trust factors and relationships that made it work, the key driving personality(ies), the community cultural backdrop against which the drama played out.

Over the years, I've been gaining a greater appreciation for our story in Jacksonville, Florida. My organization is about to turn 35 years old; our indicators project, 25. But the story of our success begins, in part, in our community's response to a smallpox epidemic in 1883. And the structures in place that created the community conditions that allowed a different kind of response to the disease predated that effort by generations.

Does that mean our successes in Jacksonville can't be replicated? Of course not -- hundreds of communities have shown they can do what we have done, and more. But those communities brought their own stories and histories and people and institutions together and developed their own organizations and their own indicators in ways that never cease to delight and teach me.

As we develop our own success stories and case histories, may I suggest thinking about both the principles/processes/projects that led to success, and also the context in which those principles/processes were put into action. Both, I think, are critically important to understand, as we increase the knowledge base necessary to make communities better.


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