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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.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, August 19, 2009

How Do You Use Community Indicators?

I was asked recently about how community indicators are actually used in a community to make things better. The context of the question was this: Someone new stepped into an organization that had an existing (and very good) community indicators program. She interviewed key stakeholders in her community and found two general responses: first, that people knew of and appreciated the community indicators project; second, that no one was quite sure what to do with it.

I suspect this is a question most of us face in our communities. What do you do with these indicators reports? Let me share with you an edited/expanded version of my answer, and get your feedback on anything I left out or need to clarify.

I firmly feel that community indicators need to serve as an integral part of a community change model. I've talked about that before on this blog, and I'll likely be talking about it again. We don't do indicators because they're pretty, or cool, or nice to have (though they are all of the above.) We do indicators because we want to help make the community better.

This community change model, the way we use it in Jacksonville, begins with a shared vision for the future. You have to have at least a broad idea of where you want to go.

The indicators then measure where we are in relation to that vision – are we getting closer to the desired future, or farther away. The indicators are not just about the specific aspects they measure – high school graduation rates aren’t just about high school seniors, but provide an overall proxy measurement of the effectiveness of the entire school system to achieve the desired results. The indicators point to areas of progress and areas that need greater community attention.

But the indicators themselves don’t identify solutions. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. They flag items of community concern, not just because we care about (in this example) education, but because this is an area we need to work on to improve our overall community and get closer to our shared vision. They set a general community agenda for action.

When the indicators identify priorities for community action, they need to trigger some sort of planning process. The indicator says something’s not working right in our current systems – what do we do about it? This planning process needs to identify strategies for action. Who will do what to address the issues identified by the indicators?

These plans need to be implemented. Someone needs to make sure the community follows through. This is where the indicators inform the decision-making processes of community institutions, from government to nonprofits to business entities and faith institutions and anyone else with a vested interest in the community. This is why the “shared vision” part is critical – to achieve the shared vision will usually take shared action, and people/institutions stepping out of traditional roles to address the shared community priorities identified by the indicators. This is one of the great strengths of the community indicators process: moving a community issue from “their problem” to “our problem.”

The actions will have results, and those outcomes need to be identified. The real success of the efforts to improve the community should be evaluated/assessed through the indicators themselves – did our strategies work? Did we make a difference? Based on what the indicators tell us, we may need to revisit our vision, rethink what we are measuring, or go back to the drawing board and develop new strategies for action.

That’s both why indicators are so important, and how to use them effectively:

1. To identify shared priorities for action;
2. To inform strategies and community planning efforts;
3. To hold the community accountable for action;
4. To assess results and evaluate success; and
5. To measure progress toward a shared community vision.

That’s the general overview. There isn't one right way to make them work, or one right set of actors to use the indicators to make change. In Jacksonville, the community indicators are used:

1. To inform philanthropic grant-making efforts
2. To develop Chamber of Commerce focus actions
3. To create the annual curriculum for our Leadership Jacksonville programs
4. To identify topics for public television/radio programming
5. To support grant-writing efforts
6. To influence legislation and policy-making at the local, state, and national level
7. To ask for community investment and increased corporate responsibility from local corporations
8. To bring together collaborative partnerships around an issue and break down silos
9. To highlight areas for further study, both in our own organization and in academic and other research areas

And more. As the indicators become institutionalized in the community, their influence broadens, but the role of the community indicators practitioner, besides sharing the data, is to help insure that they are being actively used to galvanize action.

How we do that is the subject of another blog post.


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