|Learn how to conduct assessments that hold policy-makers accountable and influence policy.|
The Lawrence Community Change Project (LCCP) was formed out of a consensus that the quality of life in the community needed improving. The Project, a collaboration of a number of local agencies and institutions, concerned citizens, and local government, had been through a strategic planning process. It had generated a vision and mission statement, defined goals to work toward, developed strategies for reaching those goals, and formulated an action plan, which it had been carrying out for a year. Committees had been working on each of the goals, new structures and policies had been put in place, and many people were excited about what was happening.
Now it was time to see whether the action plan was working. The group responsible for overseeing the effort realized that they needed to find out if the issues they had started with were still the ones that needed attention, to determine which of their tactics were working and which needed to be changed or rethought, to let the community know just what the change effort was accomplishing, and to take responsibility for continuing the process. With all this in mind, LCCP set out to create a report on the first year of the Project.
Policy, the subject of this chapter, is motivated by several factors. An important one – in addition to policymakers’ attitudes, public opinion, conventional wisdom, and crisis situations – is knowing how well current policy is working to change undesirable conditions in the community and to maintain desirable ones. This section introduces one set of tactics in an overall strategy for making or changing policy: assessing and reporting on the results (or lack) of community change efforts in order to hold the efforts themselves, and the policies and policymakers behind them, accountable for their results. We’ll define our terms, and discuss why and when to prepare regular assessments and reports, who should be involved, and how to go about it.
What do we mean by regular community assessment, reporting, and accountability?
Community assessment and reporting are, of course, valuable in their own right, both to determine and highlight community needs, and to monitor how well your organization, initiative, or coalition is doing in meeting those needs. In this section, however, we are considering them for their value in holding policies and policymakers accountable for meeting the needs of the community.
Assessment in this case is both similar to and different from an initial community assessment. It is similar in how it is conducted, using surveys, public forums, community informants, interviews, statistical indicators, observation, and/or focus groups to examine the particular issues in question. It is different from an initial assessment in that it is comparing the results of the assessment to a previously established baseline in order to determine whether change efforts have had any effect. The baseline may be one that was set at the beginning of the effort, or – if assessment is ongoing over a long period – it may be the findings from the last assessment.
A regular community assessment may be conducted on a particular issue, or on overall community health and quality of life. In the latter case, an assessment would examine a large number of issues, and might question community members about their level of satisfaction with the community, or their sense of well-being. Your assessment, of course, will focus on the issues at hand for your community, and what it is that you want to know. Here are some issues that might be assessed, either individually or as part of a larger look at the community:
- Education. What you look at here depends upon what you’re aiming at. In some communities, it might be student performance on standardized tests, or the performance of local schools. In others, it might be the number of teachers using innovative teaching techniques, changes in the school climate, dropout rates, school responses to diversity, or teacher salaries. Assessment in this category might also examine the availability of adult and higher education, from basic literacy to graduate degrees.
- Economics and economic development. This would include such elements as the number and types of new jobs created, employment rates, the number of new businesses started (as well, perhaps, as the number that failed), total business income, prevailing wages, tax revenues, etc.
- Poverty. A careful assessment of this issue would comprise not only an examination of citizens’ income (how many below the official poverty line, how many within 1.5 or two times poverty, how many below the state or national median, etc.), but also an exploration of homelessness, hunger, child poverty, eligibility for school lunches, the availability and accessibility of services, and other factors affecting or indicative of poverty in the community.
- The environment. The cleanliness of air, water, soil, and the community in general are concerns here, as is the amount and character of open space, its use, and its preservation from development and blight. Are environmental regulations in place and enforced? Are esthetics and community health considered when development is in question? What are community attitudes toward environmental issues?
- Safety and security. Here, you might examine the nature and frequency of violence in the community (domestic violence, youth violence, gangs, drug-related incidents, organized crime); lighting and other environmental violence prevention factors; the attitudes, practices, training, competency, oversight, and resources of police, fire, and other security services; traffic control and road surface conditions; workplace safety records for major employers; the safety of buildings (in earthquake-prone areas, for instance); etc.
- Transportation. The extent, cost, and ease of use of public transportation are major issues in this area. Can you get from here to there easily, cheaply, and safely, with minimal damage to the environment? Also an issue is whether the current network of roads is adequate for the traffic it must bear, and whether bridges, tunnels, and other structures that carry traffic are safe and efficient.
- Housing. The availability of subsidized and other affordable housing, the number of abandoned buildings, the pace of development, average costs to rent and buy, the percentage of income that people at different economic levels spend for housing, the character of neighborhoods, tenants’ and landlords’ rights, discrimination – all of these and more may be areas to examine.
- Cultural and recreational opportunities. Are there in the community or nearby museums, libraries, theaters, concert halls, clubs, cinemas, cafes and restaurants, parks, bike paths, hiking trails, boating of various kinds, and/or other possibilities for culture and recreation? Are they open to everyone? Who uses them? How are they funded, and is funding adequate to sustain them?
- Human services. Here, you’d assess and report on the availability and accessibility of services designed to meet the needs of at-risk or disadvantaged target populations and of the community as a whole.
- Health. In this category, you’d look at the overall health of the population, including the incidence of various diseases or conditions (diabetes, infant mortality, obesity); the availability, quality, and accessibility of treatment services and personnel; and the amount and nature of wellness and prevention advocated and practiced in the community.
Creating and maintaining a healthy community – one that promotes and sustains the health and well-being of its citizens – involves far more than providing medical services. It includes, in fact, attention to all the quality-of-life factors listed here and more as well.
Once you’ve conducted a community assessment, you have to have some way of reporting and disseminating the results. That may entail using the media, publishing a report in print, via PDF, and posting it on the Internet, and/or distributing it to the public and policymakers in other ways. We’ll discuss the actual forms such a report might take later in this section.
Reporting should follow as soon after assessment as possible. With a high quality report and good publicity, people will come to expect and look forward to these reports, and to pay attention to what they say. They can show whether conditions in the community – particularly the conditions surrounding the issues the report covers – are improving, and pinpoint what still needs to be addressed, or addressed more effectively. They can also demonstrate, and cement support for, those policies or programs or initiatives that seem to be working well. Overall, accurate reporting can highlight the areas where good policy is effective and should be supported, the areas where there is a need for policy development, and the areas where policy change is necessary to meet a need or resolve an issue.
There are really three kinds of accountability here: the accountability of government officials and other policymakers; the accountability of the community as a whole; and the accountability of those doing the work of community change.
- In the instance of accountability of government officials and other policymakers, good ongoing assessment and reporting can point out areas that aren’t being addressed, that are being addressed inadequately, or that are being addressed in ways that may actually contribute to the problem. Part of the assessment may show who’s responsible for these areas, and clearly identify where policies aren’t working or need to be developed. It can point to where the buck stops, allowing activists and the public to express their opinions on the matter to the appropriate person, governing body, or agency, and to use their votes or other methods to show their displeasure if the areas in question aren’t attended to.
- In the second case – the accountability of the community as a whole - it can demonstrate that the community is unaware of, or choosing not to adequately address, a serious issue that affects many of its citizens. This can lead to an information campaign, and an effort to convince the community of the importance of the issue, and of its responsibility to take action.
- In the last instance - the accountability of those doing the work of community change - good assessment and reporting make it obvious when the organizations actually doing the work are successfully addressing issues, and also when they should change course or expand what they’re already doing successfully or allow more time for things to work. They show when an initiative is accomplishing its mission and objectives, with the goal of ultimately leading to improvements in important population-level outcomes.
In all cases, even if the parties responsible are doing their best to bring about change, assessment and reporting can demonstrate the need for more funding, or for a greater focus on a particular area. They can serve to help increase the resources for change, and to assure that those resources go where they are most needed. Additionally, effective community assessments and reports can help build public support for the issue(s) at hand and can help ensure that future efforts have broad-based support.
Why propose assessment, reporting, and accountability?
A regular schedule of assessment, reporting, and holding everyone accountable accomplishes several purposes for the community.
- It clarifies the state of the issues at hand in the community, making strategic and action planning more effective.
- It shows which current efforts are successful and should be continued or strengthened.
- It shows which, if any, current efforts seem to be having less impact than hoped, and may need to be modified or discontinued.
- By showing progress, and shedding light on what needs to be worked on, a regular schedule of assessment, reporting, and accountability motivates the community, officials, and policymakers to continue the effort.
- It defines the areas – of both community assets and needs – that should be concentrated on.
- By defining the areas of concentration, it gives direction to the initiative, fleshing out the strategic plan, and allowing for modifications when necessary.
- It keeps the vision before the public, so efforts toward change remain supported.
- It helps with maintenance of the effort over time. People must be reminded that change efforts have to be carried on indefinitely if they are to continue to work. An assessment and reporting schedule can act as a reminder to that effect.
A tremendously successful campaign to stop youth violence in Boston stopped receiving support for implementation when the youth homicide rate virtually disappeared. People thought that since the violence rate had dropped so low, the job was over. The reality, of course, was that once anti-violence efforts declined, the violence and homicide rates went back up, until, in 2002, they had reached a level nearly as high as that of five years before, when the anti-violence plan had been put in place. When two small children were killed in the crossfires of attempted drive-by shootings, citizens realized that they needed to restart – and continue for the foreseeable future – the campaign that had worked so well...until they had stopped applying it.
- Finally, as a policy tactic, a regular schedule of reporting and assessment can hold the feet of politicians, corporations, agencies, and other policymakers to the fire, pointing out their responsibility for addressing issues when appropriate, and reminding the public to whom to make their voices heard when issues are not addressed.
Who should propose and/or conduct assessment and reporting, and establish accountability?
The ideal is that assessment, reporting, and accountability constitute a community project, as does the community change effort itself. One way to assure this end is to start the effort with a coalition that involves everyone concerned, from change agents – policymakers, politicians, government agencies, funders, community leaders – to community based organizations and institutions to beneficiaries of change.
A coalition provides opportunities to mobilize members of many different sectors of the community and bring them together to work on issues of importance to all of them. An initial community assessment establishes a baseline for later ones, identifies the issues that need to be addressed, and points out the community resources and assets available for addressing them. The more voices heard in the course of the strategic plan that grows out of that initial assessment, the more successful community change efforts will be, and the more likely you are to be able to structure ongoing assessment, reporting, and accountability as the responsibility of the community as a whole.
If, for some reason working with or developing a coalition isn’t possible, there are a number of other possibilities for parties to take responsibility for assessment, reporting, and accountability.
An initiative to assess and report on community change can sometimes effectively be spearheaded by local officials or community government. They can create a body to oversee the effort, or can themselves take charge of it directly. In either case, regular assessment and reporting have official sanction, and the public knows that they will take place. As a result, the change effort as a whole will be viewed as a community effort, although it may not be as inclusive as if it had been originated and operated by a coalition.
A local or state agency.
Especially if the effort is aimed at a specific issue that falls within the mission of a particular agency, it might make sense for that agency to take charge of assessing and reporting on the state of that issue.
A grassroots initiative.
Many campaigns for change are started by local initiatives, which then update the public on progress being made. Depending upon the effects of its campaign, an initiative may work with local government and other entities on the project, may try to convince policymakers and politicians to address areas of concern, or may work to counter government entities, corporations, or others who are engaged, knowingly or not, in activities contrary to the public interest.
A community-based organization.
Community-based organizations, especially those that deliver direct services to a target population, are often in the best position to see and respond to the needs of the community. In some cases, when other entities have different priorities, they may have to take the lead in addressing community issues, and in alerting citizens to the progress or deterioration of the conditions those issues affect.
A watchdog or advocacy organization.
This may be an organization specifically formed to report on the doings of government and other entities that influence public policy, or a statewide or professional organization focused on advocacy around one or more issues. This type of organization often proposes and conducts ongoing assessment and reporting, and holds the appropriate entities publicly accountable.
When should you propose regular assessment, reporting, and accountability?
Any time you’re concerned with or trying to affect an issue is a good time to propose regular assessment and reporting, and to hold yourself or others accountable for progress or lack thereof. There are, however, some times when making the report is especially useful, and when it’s most likely to be effective.
- At the beginning of an initiative. If you institute a regular schedule of reexamining the issue at the beginning of a change effort, you have a standard of comparison (the results of the initial community assessment), and establish the seriousness of the initiative about the issue. You also establish and define accountability – the responsibilities of the organizations involved, those of the community, the state, funders, etc. – so that you and others can both take credit for what goes well, and take responsibility for correcting what doesn’t go well.
- When an issue is being ignored by policymakers. Proposing a regular schedule of assessment, reporting, and accountability raises the issue’s profile with the public and policymakers alike, and makes it harder for the latter to continue to ignore it. It puts pressure on policymakers to recognize the need and act to meet it. It also raises the questions that will lead to possible solutions: What exactly is the problem? How did it get this way? Who is affected, and how? Who needs to be involved in order to solve it? Are there solutions that have worked in other communities? What resources do we have to address this issue?
- When a high-profile issue has been addressed for a period of time, but there has been no assessment of progress. An ongoing assessment and reporting schedule will demonstrate whether current efforts are having an effect, and help prompt necessary modifications if the efforts don’t seem to be having an effect. This will help to maintain enthusiasm for dealing with the issue, both by keeping it in the public eye, and by showing citizens the efforts’ effects. People may be more willing to pay taxes or provide other support to keep the effort going if there is some indication that things are getting better, or at least that the community is working to solve the problem.
- When an issue escalates to crisis proportions. A proposal for assessment and reporting will call attention to and define the crisis. The assessment itself can also begin the process of resolution by identifying the issues that need to be worked on and who should be working on them.
- When the public demands action on a long-standing issue. Assessment and reporting can be the first step in an action plan. If you look at the issue in relation to where it was in the past, it will become clear whether it’s getting worse or simply not changing from what was already a bad situation. In either case, it will be clear that it’s time to strategize and take action.
How do you conduct assessment and reporting to gain accountability?
There are several steps to proposing and establishing regular assessment and reporting to increase accountability:
- Present the concept to the community to gain support.
- Determine whose accountability you hope to increase – policymakers, the community, and/or those who are actually doing the work (it may be all three).
- Decide exactly what you’ll assess.
- Propose or set a regular assessment and reporting schedule.
- Adopt methods of assessment and reporting.
- Carry out and evaluate the process.
- Maintain the process over time.
Step 1: Present the concept
- Present the idea of regular assessment, reporting, and accountability positively. The community should see this as a positive step it can take to improve the quality of life for everyone. You’re not asking citizens to find fault, but rather to celebrate and use their own considerable resources to solve community problems and strengthen community assets.
Regular assessment and reporting starts with the assumption that the community can be a great place to live. It identifies assets and resources, and shows how they have grown and improved or been threatened over time. This information sets the stage for using those assets and resources to the fullest.
At the same time, a program of regular assessment and reporting identifies problem areas, a circumstance that is also positive. Identifying a problem is the first step toward solving it: if it’s ignored, it will never be solved, and will continue to get worse.
- Present the idea as part of a long and ongoing process. If real community change is to take place, assessment and reporting have to be continued over a long period. Thinking long-term helps people understand that this will happen on a regular basis, and prepares them for expecting it on whatever schedule it runs. It also highlights the fact that there is – or should be – a strategic plan at work here, one that looks at the community not only now, but well into the future.
- Show the community how regular assessment and reporting gives them a voice in, and ownership and oversight of, community change. If a representative body – a coalition or similar group as described above – proposes and/or conducts the process, if citizens are consulted as part of each assessment, if reports of the results of assessments are widely distributed and citizens are consulted again about actions to be taken, the community will be more likely to welcome the process, and to support the related change effort.
Step 2: Determine whose accountability you hope to increase
- Accountability of policymakers. In a situation where there is no plan, and where policymakers are ignoring or downplaying community issues, it is important to establish the need for attending to those issues, and the responsibility of policymakers for doing so. In a situation where policymakers, corporations, or others are actually creating community problems – health hazards, discrimination, thoughtless real estate development – it is necessary not only to stop them, but to reverse the process. A system of assessment and reporting can identify the problem and those responsible, and mobilize public opinion in favor of a solution.
- Accountability of the community. Part of the community’s responsibility is providing adequate resources to address an issue to which it has committed itself. If an organization or initiative trying to address the issue is failing because of inadequate funding, it’s up to the community to bridge the gap.
- Accountability of those doing the work. In a situation where particular organizations or agencies are assigned the responsibility of dealing with specific issues – homelessness, for instance, or AIDS treatment and prevention – those organizations or agencies should be accountable to the community, and particularly to the target population, for dealing with those issues effectively. If an organization is having little effect because what it’s doing is not adequately addressing the issue, it should modify its approach, or engage another organization that can do it well.
Step 3: Establish what areas you’re going to examine as part of ongoing assessments
A wide range of possibilities exists here. As explained above, you may be focused on specific, relatively narrow issues – domestic violence, teen smoking, the pollution of a particular body of water – or broader, but still clearly defined, issues – violence, health, or the environment – or on overarching concerns, such as poverty or quality of life, that embody many issues within them.
You may also find, in the course of your planning, that even the narrower issues are, in fact, connected to many others. You might not be able to have any effect on domestic violence, for instance, without also addressing substance use, employment and employment training (which could, in turn, include community economic development), teen pregnancy prevention, parenting skills, adult literacy, police training in handling domestic disputes, etc.
What criteria will you use to choose what to assess? Relevance to community goals, ease of measurement, the existence of similar information (comparison data) from other communities or past years – all of these and many other factors may help you determine which issues you’ll examine.
Then there’s the question of exactly what you’re going to measure to find out about the areas you’re examining. Sometimes, the most telling measures are indirect. To measure people’s economic security, for instance, Santa Cruz County, California looks not only at income, but at such issues as consumer spending, building permits, and total agricultural production (agriculture is a major county employer). Owensboro-Daviess County, Kentucky includes the numbers of subsidized school lunches and prenatal physician visits among their measures of the status of children.
A small sampling of the almost infinite number of measures you might use, depending on what you’re assessing:
- School dropout rates.
- Incidents of youth violence, which could be further broken down by type (gun-related, murder, assault, robbery, etc.), by geographical area, by the age of the participants, etc.
- Number of people using particular services (immunization, adult literacy, child care, WIC child nutrition services, etc.)
- Acres of green space in the community.
- Measures of air or water quality at various places.
- Citizen satisfaction with the condition of community parks.
- Library use.
- Units of subsidized housing for the elderly.
You may be measuring these and other areas against the objectives from your strategic plan (“By 2012, high school dropout rates will decrease to below 5%”), or simply against where they were at the last assessment. Some measures may look at such projects as the construction of a wastewater treatment plant, and compare them to their projected completion dates.
In general, it makes sense to look at measures that refer to both long-term goals (Improving water quality in the community to the point where there is no water source below Class B, and at least 60% of all water sources in the community are rated Class A) and shorter-term achievements (Completing the new, state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant by November 30, 2010). Short-term, reachable objectives keep citizens and policymakers interested and focused on the longer term, and give them a sense of the effort’s forward movement.
Step 4: Propose or set a schedule for ongoing assessment and reporting
In most cases, an appropriate schedule would call for a yearly assessment and report, with, if necessary, a readjustment of goals for the coming year. Conducting assessment and reporting at intervals longer than a year doesn’t really allow for adequate accountability. At the same time, shorter intervals, in general, don’t allow enough time to observe significant progress or deterioration in the status of the issues being assessed.
An exception to the annual schedule could be made in the case of specific tasks with a shorter timetable. Some examples are the hiring of a certain number of people to begin an intervention or staff a new facility, the recruitment of a critical mass of participants for an intervention, the cessation of an activity (e.g., dumping industrial waste) by a particular date, or the screening of a set number of people for a given medical condition.
Step 5: Adopt methods of assessment and reporting
- Assessment. There are numerous methods for assessing your issues. Surveys, focus groups, community forums, individual interviews in person or by phone, consultations with experts and community leaders, statistical indicators (i.e., census figures, organization and agency records), Global Information System (GIS) mapping, and other numerical and subjective measures can all be used to determine how the community has moved since the last assessment.
The methods you choose should depend on the resources available, the size of your community (your survey sample should be representative of the population you are sampling) and the nature of the issue. Whatever methods you choose, try to keep them consistent from assessment to assessment, so you can actually compare results.
- Reporting. It may seem that reporting the findings of regular examinations of the state of the community or of specific issues needs no thought. Just write up what you found, and everyone can read it. What could be simpler?
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. You certainly have to write up a report...but then what? Will you get it printed and hand it out on street corners? That’s a possibility, but it may not get to everyone who needs to see it. Can you get the media to cover its main points? That’s also a possibility, but you have to do some serious groundwork to make it happen. How about making it available on the Internet and in the public library? Good ideas, but how will you make people aware that the report is there, and, even more important, that they should want to know what it says?
Who issues the report, the form it takes, and the way it’s framed will have a lot to do with whether most citizens become aware of it and its findings, and consider it important. If, for instance, it’s issued by the community government, or by a coalition that includes community government, it’s likely to have a high profile. The press will cover it, community leaders will refer to it, and citizens will hear about it. They might even get a summary of it in the mail.
So one important consideration is having the report issued or sponsored by people with credibility. That may be local government or an inclusive coalition, but it may also be a well-known and respected service agency, or a watchdog organization recognized for its integrity.
Some other important considerations:
- The report should include progress toward goals leading to the change that’s desired. They may be long-term goals (By 2010, at least 95% of all infants in the community will receive vaccinations at the appropriate times), or they may be annual goals or benchmarks, based on the past year’s assessment or on steps toward the final goal (We want to reach and vaccinate at least 80% of infants in 2009, as opposed to the 76% we reached in 2008.)
- The report should look at the same dimensions of the issue as in past assessments. If an assessment of schools, for example, were to examine student test scores one year, teacher credentials another year, and parent satisfaction with the system yet another year, it would say nothing about the system’s progress. You might add an area to an assessment if it seems that it would provide useful information, but, in general, it’s important to look at the same things from assessment to assessment.
- The report should be in a form that makes it easy for most people to understand the information in it. It might, for instance, be presented in a multi-media format on the Internet – either on its own website, or on that of the community or the assessment team. It might include or consist of simple, easy-to-read charts and graphs, quotes from citizens interviewed, pictures (of new affordable housing, for instance), and/or a simple narrative explaining changes since the last assessment.
One way to frame a report is as a community report card. Community report cards are regular assessments that are reported with grades representing the community’s progress in dealing with important issues.
If the report card is part of an overall effort, then the grade might be measured against a predetermined goal for the period being assessed. If the report card is meant to stimulate policy to address issues, the grade may be measured against some external standard – for example, the state or national average or the level recommended by professionals.
A community report card makes sense in a number of ways. It provides a running record of success in dealing with community issues, as grades go up, or continue at a reasonably high level. It can document improvements in the life of the community, as grades on such issues as youth violence and mother and child health go from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s. Equally important, it can pick up and call attention to changes in needs and resources, and help an effort respond to the real long-term needs of the community.
A community report card can actually have advantages for officials and policymakers. If they’re sponsoring the report, they’re both taking responsibility for the grades in it – which is not only appropriate, but also makes them look good – and critiquing their own performance before someone else can. If they’re willing to sponsor and deal with an objective report card, and act on its findings, they can make it a great tool for community development and resolving issues, and use it to their own political benefit as well.
By the same token, a community report card – or even a simpler assessment report – can be used as a political tool by other groups. A watchdog group or community initiative can use it to point out the responsibility of particular politicians or others who are causing or refusing to address an important problem, or who are addressing an issue in a short-sighted or ineffective way.
Another tool for framing a report is to document community heroes.These are the people who work to turn the community’s goals into reality. They may be unsung volunteers, staff members of community-based organizations, citizen activists, politicians who put their careers on the line for what they believe in, or anyone else who goes the extra mile to make things better for everyone in the community. Recognizing them accomplishes several purposes:
- It energizes the heroes themselves and others like them who may work long hours at difficult tasks with little acknowledgement of their contributions.
- It inspires others to want to become community heroes.
- It spotlights the work they’re doing and its importance.
- It casts the whole assessment process in a positive light.
- It emphasizes the positive side of accountability: here are people who hold themselves accountable, and are willing to work as hard as necessary to make sure they don’t fall short of their own expectations, and don’t let the community down.
The Santa Cruz County CAP has a provision for selecting community heroes for each of their goals each year, recognizing the person or organization that’s done the most toward achieving that goal in the year studied.
Step 6: Carry out the assessment and reporting process
Now that you have it all figured out, this should be the easy part. Using the decisions you’ve made about how to do it, act! Conduct your assessment and create and disseminate your report.
You might also want to evaluate your effort, and to continue to do so over time, so that you can continue to refine it and make it more accurate and useful.
Step 7: Be prepared to continue the assessment and reporting process indefinitely
As stated numerous times in this section and elsewhere in the Community Tool Box, the work of health and community development is ongoing. It doesn’t stop because a particular effort ends, or because a specific goal has been accomplished. If your community conducts a ten-year campaign to improve its quality of life, the process won’t end at the end of ten years. If you’ve been successful, you then have to maintain that improved quality, and monitor it to make sure it continues. If you haven’t reached your goals, you still have work to do. Either way, you still need assessment and reporting to assure that conditions in the community continue to improve.
High school and college students, looking ahead to independent adulthood, often think it will be nice to no longer be graded on their accomplishments. What they fail to realize, of course, is that the grading doesn’t stop: only the grading system changes. Communities, too, continue to be graded, and those interested in health and community development must be willing to continue grading for as long as the community exists.
Regular assessment and reporting of community issues is one way to influence policy. It holds policymakers, direct service organizations, and the community accountable for the resolution of community issues, and informs the public about problem areas and progress.
Done well, a regular community assessment and report can become an anticipated event, and serve both to point out notable successes and areas needing work, and to energize and inspire the community to pursue what still needs to be done.
The ideal is that a regular assessment/reporting/accountability process be conducted by the community itself, either through a broad-based coalition involving all stakeholders, or an “official” process run by policymakers. The advantages of the former are that it is apt to be reasonably objective, and to ensure that all those affected and concerned have a voice in planning strategies to address issues and in owning the process – circumstances that make it more likely that effective action will be taken.
When policymakers ignore or resist addressing important issues, an assessment and reporting process might be proposed or conducted by an agency that works directly with those most affected, a community initiative or other local activist group, or a watchdog organization. In these cases, major goals of the process may be to identify those responsible for policy and to goad them into action through the use of public opinion.
Proposing a regular assessment and reporting schedule may be most effective at the beginning of an initiative, when it can be institutionalized as part of the larger strategic plan. Other times when such a schedule might readily be adopted include when an issue has a history of being ignored by policymakers; when the community is ready to look at the results of an ongoing effort; when an issue has escalated to crisis proportions; or when the public demands action.
Some basic guidelines for conducting successful regular assessment and reporting:
- Present them as positive, part of an ongoing process of community development, and a way for citizens to have a voice in community change.
- Determine whose accountability you hope to increase.
- Establish the areas the assessment should examine.
- Set a schedule for assessment and reporting (usually annual, but it may vary depending upon what you’re assessing and the needs of the community).
- Adopt methods of assessment (surveys, focus groups, etc.) and reporting (community report cards, recognition of community heroes).
- Carry out the process.
- Be prepared to continue the assessment and reporting process indefinitely, even after your effort is officially completed or your goals have been achieved.
Delta Strategy. Community report card for Grand Rapids, Michigan. This report card covers an array of social and development issues.
Healthy Community Coalition. A health assessment for Franklin County, Maine, graded in comparison to state and national averages.
2008 Kansas Kids Count data – contains current rates, as well as trend rates (average change per year during the most recent five years data is available.
Barusch, A. (2002). Foundations of Social Policy: Social Justice, Public Programs, and the Social Work Profession. Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock.
Ezell, M. (2001). Advocacy in Human Services. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Meredith, C., & Dunham, M. (1999). Real Clout. Boston: The Access Project.