Measuring What Really Matters

Truth be told, there has been some kicking and screaming over the years in getting me to spend as much time as I do these days in thinking and talking to others about outcomes and measurement.

Mostly, it is the result of my fervent belief that we’re not doing enough to measure what matters most in our communities because we’re so singularly fixated on economic growth rather than our quality of life.

The good news is that leaders from Iceland, Scotland and New Zealand - all women - have recently joined forces to prioritize a new agenda that focus on the well-being of citizens. 

The reality we all need to keep in mind is that what gets measured matters. What we count, quantify, measure, and evaluate influences public policy, decision-making, and investment.

Historically we haven’t measured that which matters most. Although a number of comprehensive instruments are now emerging, there isn’t agreement on a comprehensive instrument that tells us how well we are doing – never mind whether we’re getting better or worse.

As a result, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP) is still the most common measurement among industrial nations for measuring progress even though even though it is merely a gross tally of everything bought and sold with no distinction as to whether what’s being bought and sold adds, or subtracts, from our well-being and quality of life. It definitely doesn’t provide an overall perspective on how we’re doing in general.

I’m thinking the late Robert F Kennedy Jr. would be unhappy to know we’re still using GDP as a predominant measure.

Assassinated over fifty years ago, Kennedy was a vocal opponent of the use of GDP because he didn’t see it as a measure of progress.

In one of his last speeches Robert Kennedy explained it this way;

“The Gross National Product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.

It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them. GNP includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads…

And if GNP includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend.

It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike.

It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials…

GNP measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.

It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”…

While there are a number of national movements afloat to develop an alternative form of measurement, none of them are quite there yet. However it appears that this my soon change as the result of three courageous leaders.

So what do we do about it in the meantime?

Perhaps, the experts tell us, we need community leaders at all levels to pay more attention to the quality, rather than the quantity, of growth in our communities. Ideally this begins with a community coming together to articulate their collective values. These will guide priorities and decision-making.

Heeding this advice, and as a result of our ongoing focus on measurement, those I’m working with will tackle the evaluation of some broader community outcomes that the GDP doesn’t measure – future-focused e leadership, engaged citizens, responsive and relevant community initiatives, and informed communities.

We expect that communities keeping a watchful eye on these priorities are going to make different decisions than a community that is only paying attention to its economic activity.

Hopefully it will also mean we’ll be “measuring what we value rather than valuing what we measure”.


Posted on 12-14-19

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