Measuring What Matters

I’ve recently spent a lot of time thinking and talking to others about evaluation and measurement. Truth be told there was some kicking and screaming involved in getting me to do it.

While I do know it’s important, there’s just something about evaluation that makes me want to yawn and roll my eyes. Maybe instead of calling it evaluation we could make it more palatable by referring to it as learn, celebrate, and tell the story?

The reality though is that what gets measured matters. What we count, quantify, measure and evaluate influences public policy, decision-making, and investment.

Historically we haven’t always measured that which matters most. As a result there’s a lack of a comprehensive instrument that tells us how well we are doing – never mind whether we’re getting better or worse.

Even the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP) only measures economic consumption and not even whether it’s good or bad consumption. It definitely doesn’t provide an overall perspective on how we’re doing in general.

And yet, GDP remains the most common measurement used among industrial nations to measure progress even though it’s 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.

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

Assassinated almost 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.

So what do we do about it in the meantime?

Perhaps, the experts tell us, we need community leaders who pay more attention to the quality rather than the quantity of growth in our communities.
Heeding this advice, and as a result of our recent focus on measurement, those I’m working with will tackle the evaluation of some broader community outcomes that the GDP doesn’t measure – knowledgeable decision makers, engaged communities, pro-active youth, responsive 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 03-31-16

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