Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Civic Data and Collective Impact

Civic leaders interested in bringing sustained positive change to their communities make choices every day as to how to use their financial, physical and social capital. Those choices are usually informed by experience, lessons learned from others and intuition. Too rarely they are informed by what I call “civic data.”

Civic data is the translation of relevant quantitative and qualitative measures into a narrative that is shared and used to inform and guide decisions.

Civic leaders -- those individuals who are willing to assume shared responsibility for achieving and sustaining positive change within their community -- need civic data to better understand what to do, whether what they are doing is working and to persuade others to alter their actions. Achieving what some call "collective impact" cannot be achieved without civic data.

Civic data has three distinct uses:

  • To help civic leaders understand the type of change our community should seek.  As Josh McManus of the Knight Foundation observes, “We need to fall in love with the problem.” One reason we need to fall in love with a problem is sustaining positive change requires civic leaders to make very difficult and challenging decisions (behavior change is never easy). Civic leaders are more likely to take those actions if they care passionately – are in love with the problem. Unlike affairs of the heart, when it comes to civic affairs our love needs to be informed with facts, figures, trends and other data that helps us understand what is going well and needs to be reinforced and what isn’t and needs to be transformed. Civic data alone cannot help us understand the change we should seek; but we cannot define the change without it.
  • To help civic leaders develop a collective understanding of the progress individual and collective efforts are making toward the desired change. The desired change should be articulated by a clear, measurable goal(s). The metrics used and data collected/synthesized to assess that progress should be widely accepted, used and communicated among those who have assumed shared responsibility for and/or are affected by the change.
  • To help individuals make critical decisions. Choices regarding the education of their children, the career they pursue, the neighborhood where they live, the type of business they start, where to locate their business can be informed by readily accessible, relevant and current civic data.
What “civic data” is available and who is responsible for developing it varies based on its intended use. For example, to truly understand the complexity of a civic system (such as entrepreneurship, education or workforce development systems) we may need to have access to a wide range of measures and information. But that data may only be needed for a one-time or periodic assessment. Once what truly matters within a civic system is well understood and a goal is defined a community may need a much narrower data set to measure its progress. However, a community will need that data to be current and widely understood. If the civic data is to be used to inform the decisions of individuals, it will also need to be very accessible.

Advocates for civic data often make the incorrect assumption that there is demand for it among public officials, private sector executives, foundation leaders and others. Demand often needs to be built as civic leaders may be comfortable or accustomed to making decisions with limited or no civic data. Many communities use valuable resources to create civic data – often made accessible through a “community dashboard” – that are not regularly used by either civic leaders or residents. The civic data is curated to meet the expectations of the advocates rather than the needs of civic leaders and individuals.

Experience teaches us that centralizing responsibility for civic data distances the data from the decision makers. Responsibility for civic data should be embedded with those who are responsible for coordinating the community’s efforts to achieve the clear, measurable goals in question. For example, Summit Education Initiative (SEI) helps coordinate the community’s efforts to achieve very clear education goals. It has effectively used civic data to help stakeholders identify those goals and it helps stakeholders use data to identify strategies and practices to achieve those goals. The civic data and the civic strategy are embedded within the same organization.

Most importantly, civic leaders (particularly funders) need to value the civic data enough to continue to use it to inform their allocation of capital, as well as their other actions. 

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