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First Annual Work Group Meeting, Essex, MA November 2001 - Notes from the Indicators for Decision Making Work Group
Work Group Activities for the Essex Meeting
Sprawl/Smart Growth Notes on Meeting
Indicators for Decision Making Notes on Meeting
Business, Markets and Sustainability Indicators Notes on Meeting
How to Embed Indicators into Decision-Making
Discussion Leader: Chris Paterson
Scribe: Cynthia Barakatt
Participants: Chris Adams, David Bell, Bruce Boggs, Peter Hawley, Ted Heintz, Michael Kinsley, Dean Kubani, Debra Mason, Peter Melhus, Ken Meter, Allison Quaid, Darcy Rollins, David Swain
This is a topic that was developed at the Rocky Mountain Institute's "Indicators of Opportunity" meeting last May. As the name of the work group implies, the focus is on how to get the development of sustainability indicators to become embedded as standard procedure in sustainable development programs and projects at all levels.
The discussion began with four presentations on various projects involving the development and implementation of sustainability indicators in community or regional projects. The presentation were about:
  • a regional program currently in the development stages in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. This program is helping communities develop decision-making criteria that is linked to indicators throughout the planning/action/assessment cycle (Bruce Boggs, The Nature Conservancy);
  • a neighborhood program in Minneapolis (Ken Meter - www.igc/org/crossroads/nisp.html)
  • City of Toronto's Sustainability Charter (David Bell -;
  • the city of Santa Monica's Sustainable City program which began in the mid-1990s.(Dean Kubani -
The presentations showcased projects of difference scales and at different stages of development or completion, but also highlighted several differences in approaches to developing indicators, who was involved, why they were developed and how the information they generated was used.
Discussion Highlights
After hearing the presentations, David Swain suggested that the cases presented seem to highlight that there is a spectrum of approaches to indicator development, with the ends of the spectrum being indicators as "Report Card" vs. indicators as "Instrument."
In the Report Card end of the spectrum, the indicators are based on existing, available data ("supply side") and are developed with no particular agenda, other than to provide citizens and leaders with data in a useful, understandable format. These are designed to give a snap shot or "report card" of where the community or region or city is on particular issues, but not necessarily related to any particular goals. These indicators are descriptive, developed with a focus on gathering and presenting information to promote understanding of a community's current status. They are usually developed by or with government officials, and tend to rely primarily (although not exclusively) on available demographic data collected by researchers. They are often developed by people outside of the community with the intent of educating people within the community.
In the Instrumental end of the spectrum, the indicators are developed specifically to determine progress toward a desired outcome, irrespective of whether existing data sets exist for the desired information ("demand side"). In this model, goals are set first, and then indicators are developed to measure whether progress toward the goals is being made, and information is collected accordingly. These indicators tend to be prescriptive, or at least developed with an eye toward measuring causes, actions, and progress toward community-determined goals. These indicators are developed by local people for the purpose of advocating a commitment to action by local residents and political and government leaders.
The following table summarizes the two ends of the spectrum:
Report Card for Indicators Instrumental Indicators
Developed for "neutral" data Developed for advocacy
Descriptive Prescriptive
Supply-side (information is available) Demand-side (Info. must be collected)
Intent: preparing the market Intent: commitment to act
Seek to provide understanding Seek to instigate action
Tend to be developed by people outside of the existing decision making processes of the community for local citizens and officials Developed by local people for other locals and the outside world
Once the concept of the two models at ends of a spectrum was introduced, the discussion centered around the extent to which these models were mutually exclusive, part of a continuum, or two of a larger set of models that might be represented in matrix form. There was general consensus among the group that these ideas should be discussed and explored further, perhaps becoming the main focus of this work group's ongoing discussion.
There was also discussion about the role of leadership and decision-makers in both developing and using indictors. The following points/issues were raised:
  • Key decision makers are often not the primary users of the information we are talking about; the people they talk to (e.g., high and mid-level staff people) are. We need to broaden our understanding of who uses the information and how
  • Two basic change models to consider when thinking about approach to indicator projects:
  • 1 - seeking change through government and political leadership
  • 2 - work through citizens, community-based organization (CBOs) in decisions they can make and then put pressure on political leaders to follow suit
  • Project in Michigan (Bruce Boggs, Chris Paterson) has been doing report card indicators for a few years, and now is moving into an instrumental model. A new "catalytic leadership" model is resonating with this particular group. Catalytic leadership encompasses four roles in a shared leadership arena:
  • 1 - creating a sense of urgency; getting issues on the agenda
  • 2 - convening the stakeholders
  • 3 - facilitating agreement about a course of action
  • 4 - sustaining that action

Groups that play the role of developing report card can slide into some of these leadership functions; the roles are shared by several different players.
There was discussion about the role this workgroup could play in the future in raising some of these issues among the larger network of practitioners/experts. Some suggestions:
  • Look for examples from around the country of where indicators have been integrated into leadership programs. How are the indicators being used? How do they start to institutionalize them so city staff is involved in how they are used?
  • In Oregon, there was training for teams of leaders from rural communities. Follow up to find out if training has permeated into communities.
  • In the political leadership arena, there is no current consensus that sustainability should be pursued. How are indicators used in that environment to bring about change? How to develop indicators to cause change? (Fits in with the demand side approach when citizens have diagnosed issues, and larger policies need to be changed.)
  • How can community-based indicators help to create a political and social market that is prepared to respond? Further explore the idea of creating the market and then creating the commitment, and use indicators to measure progress.
  • Explore how indicators can be used as a sustainability management system. That is, creating incentives internally for government staff depending on how much progress they are making toward established targets.
  • Further explore merits of using descriptive vs. prescriptive indicators. Example of Silicon Valley Environmental Partnership where, lacking political support, decision was made to use "report card" indicators to show area is headed toward an environmental crisis. Initially got front-page stories, lots of positive press, but interest quickly faded.
  • Discuss standardized means of establishing targets. It is hard not only to get political support to establish targets, but also political support/consensus about what the targets should be. Perhaps a standardized approach could help to address the issue of getting leadership behind targets.
  • Discuss whether the proper role of federal government might be to collect descriptive data - good, neutral role. In absence of a mandate for sustainability, can talk about linkages in business terms about leveraging investments.

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