Management consultants, government and business schools like to point out that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But that raises questions: What if the thing you measure doesn’t really matter, or worse, if what matters is not being measured?
If we don’t measure what matters, then we will fail to manage what matters — a good description of the state of management today in the public and private realms.
So if we are often measuring and managing the wrong thing — especially at the national and provincial levels — what does matter?
I have been involved in two endeavours in the past month that get at precisely that question, one in Victoria and the other in Smithers.
In Victoria, the Victoria Community Foundation recently published its 10th annual Vital Signs report, for which I wrote the main essay. Every year, the foundation asks people in an open, web-based survey to tell them what are the key things to improve and to celebrate in Greater Victoria. More than 2,000 people responded from all over the CRD.
The most important issues in Greater Victoria, they said, relate to the cost of living and housing affordability, poverty and homelessness, mental health and addictions problems (which often overlap with issues of poverty), urban planning and management, health care and employment.
In 2015, for the first time, two environmental issues — sewage treatment and environmental management — also made the top 12 issues of concern.
But just as important as what they found troubling is what they found to like. The best things about Greater Victoria, they said, are mostly associated with the quality of our natural environment, the quality of the built environment (including parks and walkability), the sense of community, family and friends, and our cultural and recreational resources, with access to locally grown food as a separate benefit, perhaps fitting in with sense of community.
In Smithers, where I went a couple of days after the launch of the Victoria report, the town had conducted a similar survey. There are many similarities with the Victoria findings, but some interesting differences, too. When asked what changes would make Smithers a better place, people identified first the economy and then improved cultural and recreational amenities as well as improved shopping.
Improved housing was also a concern, as were issues of land use and planning, infrastructure and transportation, and environment and sustainability.
More revealing is what they said they loved about Smithers; their affection for their downtown and main street and the small-town feel and sense of community. Perhaps related to that, they loved their diversity, civic engagement and “people making stuff happen” — none of which was very apparent in Victoria.
These make for some interesting measurement challenges. How do you measure the “small town feel” or “people making stuff happen”? For the former, Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach suggested the “wave index” — count the number of waves you get when you walk through the downtown. Not many in Victoria, I suggest.
So what do we make of all this? Well, first, that it’s complex; people are paying attention not just — in fact, not mainly — to the state of the economy but to their natural and built environments, their social and cultural needs and amenities, the needs and challenges of the disadvantaged and many other issues. What matters is very broad, which means we need to measure broadly to monitor and assess our progress as a community.
Second, that what matters in a small northern community and a large urban/suburban community is quite similar in some respects, but quite different in others. So if we want to measure and manage what matters, we can’t use uniform measures or cookie-cutter measuring systems. Every community is different in some respects, and our measuring tools need to be flexible.
Third, and perhaps most important, if you want to manage what matters, you need to start by finding out what matters to the people who elect you or pay your salary as a public servant.
The simplest way is to ask them what matters, and then ask them how they would measure that. The answers might be revealing, and might change what we manage and how we manage it.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.