Community Indicators for Colorado?

Michael J. Mueller
I. What are Community Indicators?

Community indicators are quantitative information about what has often been considered a qualitative subject: the well-being of communities. Because they are numbers, they can be measured and compared over time to find trends that tell communities where they have been and where they are likely headed. Community indicators quantify community well-being in terms of indicator frameworks such as quality of life, sustainability, or healthiness. The community indicators movement has experienced a revival in the United States in the 1990s, nearly 200 cities across the United States have adopted the community indicators process to track community conditions, inform policy choices, build consensus, and promote accountability. However, it is not a new movement as its origins are generally traced back to 1910 when a process was funded to develop indicators in Pittsburgh. Throughout the rest of the century, the popularity of community indicators in this country waxed and waned. The reason for the revival in this decade can be traced to the recent popularity of sustainability as a social goal.

Communities usually divide their indicators into several categories. A typical set of categories is economy, environment, health and community, population and resources, and youth and education. There may be a small or large number of indicators under each category. There are no limits on the types of indicators that might be used. One expert has identified over 1000 different indicators used in the United States. Some examples are net job growth, tons per capita of solid waste, births to females under 18 per 1000 live births, residential water consumption, and volunteer involvement in schools. One of the most frequently used indicators in the environmental and/or health category is the pollution standards index. The PSI rates air pollution in an area on a five part scale that goes from good to dangerous. The indicator is often stated as number of days per year with the PSI in the good range.

Community indicators don't just monitor progress, they make it happen. At the turn of the new century, communities everywhere are learning that the old ways of tracking progress aren't good enough. They need measures that help them strike a balance between economic, environmental , and social concerns. Better yet, they need to find ways of integrating those concerns , so that they are no longer seen as competing interests. They also need to link their indicators to performance, so that citizens, community leaders, and political leaders can hold themselves accountable. Once a set of indicators is developed, it gets used by many people. Business groups use them to assess the market or the long-term prospects for the local workforce. Schools use them to educate students about local history and issues. Advocacy groups refer to them to make their case to the media, the public, foundations, and political figures. The media use them to report on what's happening in the community. Politicians, of course, use them to point to their accomplishments or the failings of their opponents. And increasingly, philanthropic foundations (as well as corporate and government grant-makers) are using indicators to help them identify priorities for funding and for identifying "high-leverage" strategies, where a little money in one place will have a lot of positive spin-off or "ripple" effects. Perhaps the most common use of indicators, however, is in concert with broad efforts by a community at drafting visions of a better future. Indicators help communities build participation, set priorities, develop action plans, and track progress toward realization of goals. Denver, for example, needs to know it is not only doing well currently, but also that it is moving in a direction that makes future living and working conditions even better than they are now if it is to continue to prosper and successfully compete in the future.

II. Examples from Other Cities.

JACKSONVILLE, FL. The Jacksonville community indicators effort began in 1985, making it the oldest ongoing and annually updated indicators project in the United States. Quality of Life in Jacksonville: Indicators for Progress (QLJIP) started with a collaboration between the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the City of Jacksonville and the United Way of Northeast Florida. For the first few years the base funding for the project came from the Chamber, with the City providing more funding after the project was well on its way and gaining recognition. Quality of life was defined as "a feeling of well-being, fulfillment, or satisfaction resulting from factors in the external environment." Nine categories of indicators were chosen: education, economy, public safety, natural environment, health, social environment, government/politics, culture/recreation, and mobility. The indicators were initially aimed at assessing quality of life, but there was a major revision in 1998 which integrated concepts of sustainability into the selection and description of indicators. This was done in order to establish linkages among indicators and explore the potential long-term impacts of short-term trends. The 1998 QLJIP report has a total of 76 indicators which are listed in the appendix. The Jacksonville community indicators have produced several outcomes. They have become a relevant, reliable source of information. The Florida Times-Union (the major daily newspaper in the area) frequently, at least weekly in 1998, uses or mentions the QLJIP indicator data, graphics, reports, and information in their coverage of local news. Policy outcomes have come in the form of integration of the indicators into institutional agendas in the public and nonprofit sectors. The city of Jacksonville consults the indicators in their performance-budgeting process. The United Way uses the indicators of guide funding allocations. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce has actively responded to several specific indicators in its annual work plan including establishing a stewardship group to improve water quality in the St. Johns River, promoting dialogue around race relations, and facilitating public education reform.

SEATTLE, WA. Sustainable Seattle is another of the leading community indicator efforts in the country. It produces a report with 40 indicators in five categories: economy, environment, health and community, population and resources, and youth and employment. As its name indicates, the Seattle community indicators effort has always had a focus on sustainability. This is exemplified by their presentation of each indicator which always includes a discussion of linkages to other indicators. Sustainability, in part, is about understanding connections and figuring out how to make the machinery run more smoothly. The idea is to explore linkages to figure out where in the system a slight tweak will have the most positive effect. For example, crime is an issue in many communities, but solving crime by hiring more police or building more jails may not do as much to improve the sustainability of a community as tweaking the "education" or "jobs" part of the system (The indicators are listed on the appendix.).

STATE OF MAINE. Established in statute by the governor and the legislature, the Maine Economic Growth Council began work in 1993. It has produced five community indicators reports. In this case the community is the whole state of Maine. The indicators are based on a vision for the state developed through an extensive stakeholder process. The vision is stated as "Our vision is a high quality of life for Maine citizens. Central to this vision is a sustainable economy that offers an opportunity for everyone to have a rewarding employment and for business to prosper, now and in the future." Their indicators report is entitled "Measures of Growth: Performance Measures and Benchmarks to Achieve Maine's Long-Term Economic Goals". The Maine approach is much more oriented towards traditional economy-type concerns and a look at their categories shows a very different emphasis than those of Jacksonville and Seattle. Maine's report uses 56 indicators in the following seven categories: fundamental performance measures, innovative businesses, skilled and educated workers, vital communities, efficient government, state-of-the-art infrastructure, and healthy natural resources. It has no indicators covering health, public safety, culture, nor recreation. (The indicators are listed in the appendix.)

While all three community indicator examples emphasize sustainability, they end up with very different sets of indicators. This is possible because they each start out with different purposes. Jacksonville was originally interested in quality of life, Seattle started out with its prime focus on sustainability, and Maine clearly was interested in economic growth from the beginning. Sustainability is more the common thread found in all of them rather than the central purpose.

III. What's Going on in Colorado?

There are many efforts and projects going on in Colorado that fit under the community indicators rubric. The brief discussion here is not necessarily fully comprehensive or completely current. There is one statewide community indicators effort, the Colorado Sustainability Project. It started in 1994 and has formulated twelve categories of indicators. However, it has not published an indicators report of the type reviewed above much less embarked on an effort to produce annual trends. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment published a report in 1998 entitled "Environmental Score Card." It focused exclusively on air, water, and hazardous materials and waste. While it does include data and trends over time on some indicators it is mainly a one-time report on the results of the various programs and regulations of the Department.

There are a number of community indicator projects that are a result of an effort by a funding organization, The Colorado Trust, focused on community health. These community indicator efforts are part of a larger healthy communities effort which has been established in a number of areas. These efforts emphasize human medical health in their indicators. There are community health indicator projects in Aurora, the Roaring Fork-Grand Valley area, Boulder County, Routt/Moffatt Counties, Lakewood, Pueblo County, Delta/Montrose Counties, Archuleta/La Plata/San Juan Counties, San Luis Valley Counties, and Mesa County. A unique community indicators project is Piton Foundation Data Initiative in Denver. The indicators in this project are focused tightly on the characteristics of low income people in low income neighborhoods. The City of Boulder issued a semi-annual report called "Boulder Trends". In it sixteen economic, social service, and air quality indicators are aggregated in three indices and compared as percentages of the baseline first quarter of 1985. However, the report is no longer issued with the last issue in 1997. The City of Denver is establishing a set of indicators as part of its current development of a new Comprehensive Plan. There does not seem to be a community indicators effort anywhere in Colorado that even approaches the well established, comprehensive efforts in Jacksonville, Seattle or Maine.

IV. Types of Community Indicators.

There are several types of community indicators and they each provide a different type of information. The most common types are economic development indicators, quality of life indicators, and sustainability indicators. One other type that will be briefly discussed is community health indicators. There are many definitions of the various types of indicators. In order to bring some organization to the plethora of overlapping, confusing and sometimes contradictory definitions, it is helpful to remember that the purpose of all community indicators is to measure community "well-being". Community well-being is the sum of the "well-being" of all members of the community. Individual well-being is not a straightforward concept and certainly not something easily measured in a quantitative fashion. However, the concept is at the heart of economic theory, where "well-being" is generally called "utility." It is possible to use 100 years of economic theory of utility to organize and define the various types of community indicators since they are all built on the idea of community well-being.

Individual utility is the satisfaction or well-being that a person receives from possessing or consuming goods and services. This is usually illustrated in economic literature as:

utility = U ( food, clothing, medical services, shelter, recreation ).

The idea is that the more of any type of good or service the individual has the greater is his well-being. It does not mean an identical combination of goods and services gives two individuals the same well-being because individual preferences are not the same. In general, it is not possible to quantitatively measure an individual's utility level. That is, it is not possible to know, for example, that a certain combinations of goods means her utility is 180. Even if that were possible, it is not possible to compare utility levels across individuals because utility is subjective. Sometimes the monetary expenditures on all the goods and services that an individual has is used as a measure of his utility. But this is not correct because price paid is not the same as utility received, even if utility could be measured in monetary terms. Some of our commonly used community indicators, such as sales revenue and per capita income are based on expenditures as a measure of well-being.

Using the discussion of utility and expenditures, it is possible to talk about the main types of community indicators in a rational way. Economic development indicators are based on the utility example used above. All the goods and services are things which have a price that the individual pays in order to possess and enjoy them. Because of that it is easy to use total expenditures type measures as community indicators. This is found most prominently in economic development indicators such as the State of Maine Measures of Economic Growth. Of course it has many indicators that are not expenditure based, but its overall nature seems to emphasize a community well-being based mainly on thing individuals can directly buy and sell.

It is clear that individual well-being not only comes from marketable goods and services but also many things not directly available for purchase, as an expanded utility description illustrates:

utility' = U ( above plus, clear mountain view, urban walk along high line canal, hike in community open space, wildlife viewing on South Platte river corridor, time with children, boating on a clean river, good schools, low crime rate, low teenage pregnancy rate, ...).

The list in this utility expression in similar to the first one in that all the items are goods and services which produce immediate utility. It is different because the new things in the list are not directly bought and sold, they are nonmarket items. A clear view of the mountains contributes to well-being and an individual can enjoy it without first owning it through purchase. The quality of life indicator is based on this expanded utility description. It attempts to show how a community is doing in terms of those things that produce well-being for its individual members at the present time, whether they have a direct price or not. The community health indicators are a subset of the quality of life indicators that take into account mainly utility producing things involving human health.

People are well known to have a predilection for concern about the future. In some that means tomorrow in others it means decades or even centuries from now. Since individuals get some comfort (well-being) from knowing that things look good for the future, it is reasonable to once more extend the utility list to take the future into account:

utility" = U ( above plus, water consumption, population growth, energy use, solid waste generated and recycled, biodiversity, distribution of personal income, ...).

An individual who feels that water consumption is such that the community's resources will be able to sustain its population for the next 50 or so years gains some utility. Some may feel that it is important that their community operate in a way not to decrease biodiversity from existing levels and so on. Sustainability indicators are based on the expanded utility concept that takes into account concern for the future - concern that the community will continue to improve as a viable place to live and raise a family and for businesses to prosper and grow to generate income for individuals. The indicators used in Sustainable Seattle follow this approach. The sustainability concept is very important for a city or metro area because one that manages to have continually improving sustainability indicators will have such a strong social, cultural and economic situation that it will prosper during bad times nationally as well as boom during good times nationally.

V. Process for Constructing Community Indicators.

"The process is as important as the product," is what most indicator groups say about the value of bringing people together to define measures of well-being for their community. There is no single best approach. One of the most important things to know is that the process will take time. Community indicators are meant to be new pieces of civic infrastructure that will persist over many years getting refined and improved with experience and as new people become engaged. In brief, the process of creating an initial indicators report involves the following steps:

  1. Form a working group
  2. Clarify your purpose
  3. Identify your community's shared values and vision
  4. Review existing models, indicators and data
  5. Draft a set of proposed indicators
  6. Convene a participatory selection process
  7. Perform a technical review
  8. Locate the data
  9. Publish and promote the report
  10. Update the report regularly

The working group is the team of people who do the real work of designing the process, wading through the technical details, developing the data, and promoting the report. It is important that the working group be very diverse in order to generate broad community support. Step 6 is also very important in developing broad community support. It should involve a series of public forums, with good facilitators, in order to come to a community consensus on the indicators.

In the pursuit of consensus and diversity, it is easy to fall into the mode of adding indicator after indicator until the list is so long it becomes unwieldy and almost useless. Collection of an endless amount of numbers is always a temptation. A reaction to this is to limit the diversity of the working group to a select set like businesses, or local governments, or advocacy groups. This is a formula for failure in developing community indicators. Since merely describing a situation does little to reveal how it arose or what sustains it, the approach that has most often worked has been an analytic method, one that looks for causal relationships between events rather than simply at the events themselves. If the indicators chosen illustrate the validity of the relationships, then the indicators project has a handle on approaching the real situation and will have an impact on society. Some lessons from the past about indicators are:

  • There's no such thing as a value-free indicator.
  • Effective indicators require a clear conceptual basis.
  • Comprehensiveness may be the enemy of effectiveness.
  • Measurement does not necessarily induce appropriate action.
  • To take action, look for indicators that reveal causes, not symptoms.

One of the reasons that sustainability indicators are becoming more and more widely used as community indicators is that sustainability offers a clear conceptual basis for the rather intangible notion of community well-being.

While the concept of sustainability is very broad and applied in many different forums, it is worthwhile to elaborate on it somewhat following the definition in the previous section. An old adage given as advice by elders is to maintain the capital and spend at most the interest. Since society as a whole does not pay estate taxes, this works for the community as a whole over generations with a proper definition for capital. In conventional economic terms this is translated as development that preserves or enhances initial capital endowments - human capital, social capital and natural resources as well as physical capital. The connection between sustainability and capital provides a framework for determining a coherent set of sustainability indicators. Simply, they should signify changes in the stock of capital. Clean air, uncongested highways, high school graduates, and open space areas, are examples of stocks of capital. They are either used to produce consumables or to provide consumption services for the current generation, and they can be used to replenish, enhance, and preserve themselves. Their uses are often linked, an example being the stock of clean air and of uncongested highways. Sustainability indicators need to show the connection between these stocks. The number of good quality air days is an indicator of clean air, but asthma-related hospital admissions shows the link between natural capital (clean air) and human capital (good health). Changes in the stock of the full endowment of capital and the inherent linkages between them in use provide a rigorous framework for development of a set of meaningful, coherent, and analytical sustainability indicators.

VI. Use of Sustainability Indicators.

Community indicators have been put to many uses, hoped for and unexpected but rewarding. They lend themselves naturally to use in local government comprehensive plans and budgeting processes. They have been used in community visioning processes. They could be of great use in activities such the local portion of the recent statewide smart growth initiative and for support for ensuing legislation requests. Once a community indicators program is established and respected it can be used as a neutral facilitator for the community where citizens can work on divisive issues in a constructive setting. Respected community indicators will become a resource for the media and the educational system. One of the most interesting, and growing, uses is by charitable and grant-making institutions to set priorities and make decisions. They are used by business associations and community service groups to help devise annual work plans. Indicators that are accepted by the community can be used to great advantage as inputs for community studies such as transportation MIS's and special governmental studies such as the Fountain Creek Watershed Project. Obviously, they can be used for economic development and recruiting by public and private organizations. In conclusion, their most important value is in heightening and nurturing, on a continuous basis, the sense of community in our modern metropolitan community.


Michael J Mueller is Coordinator for the Community, Environmental and Economic Development Analysis Program in the Center for Community Development and Design at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Dr. Mueller has been on the faculty of Clarkson University and the University of Oklahoma, and done research in environmental economics. He is a member of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission and the South Platte River Commission and active in environmental organizations. His involvement with the sustainability movement dates from 1988 and includes academic research, attendance and presentation at conferences and an EPA workshop, and participation in development of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's ‘Environmental Scorecard'. Dr. Mueller received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan, a Masters in economics from Colorado State University, and a Bachelors in chemistry from Northern Illinois University.  He can be reached atmmueller@nilenet.com.