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Old School Government Report Cards Give Way to Community Livability Scores

Remember when report cards were simple records of your academic successes and failures? For some of us, grades were accompanied by groundings; for some of you, maybe an ice cream sundae. Report cards for local governments mostly come in the form of resident surveys – customer satisfaction surveys, citizen satisfaction surveys, community quality ratings. They don’t exactly come with groundings, but nobody’s getting sundaes either.


Community Surveys Have Become a Best Practice

Today’s savvy local government managers are conducting these surveys and getting their grades at rates never seen before. When my colleagues and I wrote the first citizen survey book for International City/County Management Association (ICMA) in 1991, we estimated between 30 and 60 local governments did periodic broad citizen surveys about quality of community life and services. Today we have collected and coded the results of these kind of citizen surveys from 600 different places all across America. Among those places over 25,000 in population, more than 30 percent, representing at least 77,000,000 residents, have conducted a broad citizen survey.

Despite the popularity of traditional resident surveys, the model for these old school measures has mimicked student report cards for as many years as both have been around.

Models need refreshing and rethinking – not just for how we teach, learn and manage, but for how we measure.


New Model of Community Quality Forms Basis for Next Generation Citizen Survey

Imagine a different model. Assessments implicate not only students, but teachers, classmates, parents and others who can help students to succeed. If everyone has a stake in each child’s work, then everyone works together to maximize the grades of the child in question. This way the report card reflects the success of the entire system devoted to assure her achievement. We already see these principles changing public education where some schools are closed and others are targeted for extra support, not just because of student grades, but because teachers, principals and whole neighborhoods are being held responsible for the quality of education.

Similarly, the new citizen survey is not only about whether the government did right by the taxpayer, the survey delivers resident evaluations of community livability. With the next generation community survey, questions are about characteristics that comprise community quality, not just local government service delivery, and solutions not only come from government, but they come from partnerships with every person and organization that benefits from a good quality of community life. When civic life is understood to be everyone’s purview, the questions that arise from the new citizen survey aren’t only, “how can government improve?” They include, “how can we all contribute to making things better?”


Broader Measures Mean Better Solutions

Why is this important? Because when we reconceive the meaning of grades to be something other than the responsibility of just local government, and we measure more than the quality of government services, we open the door to many more solutions to improving places. In a time when one of the biggest roadblocks to community improvement is knowing how to respond to customer opinions once they are delivered, being able to turn to more than a single actor to get things done vastly improves the chances for making communities thrive.

Here’s one example. Fixing low police ratings may have only a little to do with improving the activities of police or even the activities of the rest of local government. Good police ratings may be a condition for a safe community, but safety is the real goal. A low police rating or a low sense of personal safety from residents may be bolstered by a downtown business district that stays open later into the night to keep the streets alive; a city that funds safety enhancing land use practices ; faith based organizations that hold art fairs and support youth programs; schools that offer practices in local government operations; and residents who convene block parties to develop a stronger sense of mutual security.

The new survey about community livability not only assesses how well government operates, but it measures how well a community delivers on the fundamental qualities of community life – what ICMA’s executive director, Bob O’Neill, identified as “critical issues” for the future of the local government management profession:

  • “Jobs and Economy
  • Education
  • Safety
  • Health Care
  • Environment
  • Infrastructure, including transportation”

Solutions that grow out of the new community assessment of critical community factors will still result from benchmarks and trends to help identify local issues that require attention. Using these survey results requires answers that balance on the shoulders of all the actors key to enhancing community quality.


A Conspiracy of Support is Linked to Citizen Survey Results

A change to the model for citizen satisfaction surveys is no maudlin exercise to appease overworked government employees. Conceiving community excellence as the responsibility of all community members means that city staff and councils neither need be the primary stakeholders of citizen surveys nor the only sponsors. They do not have to be the source of all the problems or all the solutions. For strong communities, everyone must engage.

Not coincidentally, the melody of civic engagement is in the air and the new model of measuring community quality is in sync. Maybe the economic downturn wrote the score, but managers of local government are singing the tune of community responsibility far more often these days than they are any longer promising to be the sole power behind quality community life. Scholars and governments now are discussing co-delivery of services as partners with citizens and “shared interests and needs” for citizens and governments. There are institutions devoted primarily to civic engagement, web-based companies helping to encourage residents to sponsor community enhancements and white papers extolling the benefits of genuine citizen participation in community building.

A government for the people is also by the people and a community by the people is a place that works. The old school name and blame game for local government will be replaced by a conspiracy of support, not only because action is most effective when all members of the community are engaged, but because the right measurement will point the way.


Author: Thomas I. Miller is the president of the National Research Center, Inc.  


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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