Trevor Hancock: Monitoring community well-being is complicated

There are three important questions in planning a healthy community: Where do we want to be, how do we get there and how well are we doing?

The first concerns the development of a common vision and common goals, the second to a shared strategy and the third to establishing a process to monitor and report on progress.

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I have long been involved in the development of community indicator systems, and it is complex and challenging work. Typically, good systems cover a dozen or so “domains,” each of which can contain a number of indicators.

But how do you measure progress across so many fields without swamping people in hundreds of indicators?

One approach is to compile indexes that combine a number of different measures and generate a single number. The GDP is an example of this, although it is more of a misleading indicator; its main alternatives, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator and the Happy Planet Index, do the same thing, but using different measures based on different underlying values.

This illustrates an important point: Our choice of indicators reflects our values and our aspirations. But it also drives our actions; we manage what we measure. So if we don’t measure something — our community’s level of creativity and artistic engagement, for example — then we won’t pay much attention to it and won’t do a good job of managing it.

A more useful approach than developing a single index is to acknowledge the complexity of a community, define a set of domains and within those domains identify a few key indicators that stakeholders and community members find useful.

That is what the Regional Outcomes Monitoring (ROM) Collaborative has been doing here in the capital region.

After extensive consultation, the collaborative has identified a set of 10 domains that are important to community well-being: Affordable and appropriate housing, food security, economic security, thriving children and youth, lifelong learning, inclusive and connected communities, healthy and safe environments, accessible human services, recreation and active living, and connection to arts and culture. Within each of those, key indicators are being identified, but that is harder than it might seem.

Part of the problem is that within each domain, there are dozens, even hundreds, of potential indicators to choose from.

Take the example of arts and culture. The first question is, what do we mean by “arts and culture”? Watching a film or play, visiting a gallery, attending a concert or festival, reading about arts and culture?

How about active engagement with the arts by participating in them? That might include playing in a band, singing in a choir, folk dancing, taking art classes or being in an amateur theatre group.

And beyond that, what about making your living in the arts, which is a significant part of our local economy?

If we take these three categories — audience/spectator, participant, full or semi-professional — then what do we want to know?

Here, equity is an important issue; we want everyone to be able to be involved with and benefit from arts and culture.

So we need to know who is involved (and thus, more importantly, who is not that we might want to reach out to), how accessible arts and cultural activities are to different groups (old and young, rich and poor, etc.), how well funded the arts are, and what economic benefits we derive.

In practice, the choice of indicators is limited by the local availability and/or cost of the data. The information might not be collected at all, or the sample size at the local level might be too small, which makes the data unreliable, or it might only be collected occasionally.

Often, that means relying on data that are routinely collected locally, but might not be what we are really interested in. This might mean we need to do local surveys and data collection that meet our local needs, but that can get expensive.

So it is a juggling act, and the answer is never perfect. We need to recognize that indicators are based on value-driven choices, so the key question is what sort of community do we want to be, then how will we measure our progress in getting there — but measure it we must.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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