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 Some of the thinking is outdated, and many of the links may have broken over time.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Community Indicator Projects and Role Challenges

I had the privilege yesterday of meeting with the people behind the Arizona Indicators Project that we've talked about before. One of the topics that came up in conversation was the difficulty in managing the role relationships among being a trusted data provider, a neutral convener, and an effective advocate for change.

I've been thinking about the topic since I arrived back in Jacksonville (in the remaining moments before I head up to Beaufort, South Carolina to talk to them about their indicators work!) Let me lay out the issues and how we've navigated them, mostly successfully, in Jacksonville. Then I'd love to hear your comments about different models to manage these potential role conflicts.

First of all, the role of the trusted data provider is paramount (in my opinion) to having a successful community indicators project. People need to have confidence in the information you're providing. If they don't trust the data, or think you're manipulating it in some way to push a particular agenda, you're sunk -- your integrity has to be central to how you're perceived if your data are going to be used.

The second role, that of a neutral convener, stems from our experience in Jacksonville. We existed to bring the community together around key local issues before we began publishing community indicators reports, and so my perception of the functions of an organization are colored by that history and experience. That being said, we don't publish indicators reports just because we like looking at numbers. We do so with an intent to influence decision-making in a positive fashion, to pull people and institutions into doing better things and doing things better because they have good data to inform them. Being the trusted data source creates a good fit with being the trusted convener around the issues identified by the data. This convening function or role is critical to addressing problems that persist despite the best efforts of the current systems.

The indicators report also connects issues across traditional boundaries. A good report highlights the interrelationships among different issue areas or sectors -- how education affects economic development, and how that affects environmental sustainability, and how that affects health, etc. Because we're talking about community indicators with a broad sweep across multiple areas, the indicators organization is often well suited to bring multiple partners and perspectives together to identify solutions to the problems. And because the data are trusted, the organization is in a good position to be trusted to facilitate an even-handed, honest discussion. 

The third role, that of being an effective advocate for change, creates difficulties. We do indicators because we want change -- and we know whether or not the change is happening, because that's what we're measuring. Here's where the role conflicts and different organizational models show up. Organizations can passively wait for someone else to do good things to make things happen and improve the indicators -- to the extreme, this is a publish-and-wait approach. These projects tend to spend a lot of time battling for relevancy. On the other extreme, organizations can actively push a change agenda. These organizations have to fight the perception that they are no longer neutral, and fight to maintain perceived integrity behind their data.

Clearly, the model for community improvement centered around the indicators project has to be involved enough to galvanize action for change, yet removed enough to remain a neutral convener and a trusted, independent data source. This turns out to be challenging, but by no means impossible -- what is needed is a level of intentionality and foresight in the approach to community change. The model for community change that your organization develops has to, again in my opinion, wrestle through these issues and identify how the organization is going to address each of these important functions.

In Jacksonville, we've been successful in maintaining both relevance and trust through leveraging the neutral convener role to engage citizens as advocates for change. We give them the information to be better involved in community improvement, and allow them to take the descriptive indicator information and articulate their own prescriptions for improvement. We've seen widespread community debates on the proper course of action around an issue centered on the indicators, where each side in a political debate use our same report to justify their preferred course of action.

And that, I think, is as it should be -- we want to create a community culture of data-informed decision-making processes, and when the debates are data-rich and thoughtful, we're seeing democracy at its best.

What are your thoughts?


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  2. This blog post captures the essence of of how the Community Action Network is currently functioning. We began as a neutral convener bringing together community stakeholders to discuss and plan around critical community issues. Now, with our Community Dashboard initiative we are building on our role as a trusted data provider. We are advocating for change through our Stable Families, Healthy Community Plan which works to increase enrollment in social service programs such as SNAP. This is directly tied to indicators on our dashboard such as the percentage of people who are living below 200% of the federal poverty level. By connecting people to supportive services, we are actively working to move people from a low-income status to one that is more stable. There have been many debates about how to best proceed with this initiative. Navigating through their feedback has been essential in building a collaborative effort that truly engages the community. I appreciate your discussion of this. Complicated organizations such as ours must remember to keep the management of these roles in mind at all times.

  3. great insights!

    Tony Genco