Friday, September 25, 2015

Groping for trouts: order and the chosen good

No, we can put order anywhere we like. There’s not a trout we can’t tickle, a fish for which we can’t contrive a net. We can find forms in ink blots, clouds, the tubercular painter’s spit: and to the ants we can impute designs which Alexander would have thought himself vainglorious to dream of.  But to think of order and chaos in this relative way is not to confuse them, or put conditions out of the reach of judgement. There are clashes between orders, confusions of realms. Not every arrangement is equally effective. And we must keep in mind the relation of any order to the chosen good. - William Gass

Numbering one

Recently, Rochester was once again placed at the top of a list of [insert superlative] cities. This time it was Livability's third annual ranking of the best small to mid-sized cities in the U.S. Livability provides content marketing to help cities attract and retain business and residents. Three years ago they began ranking more than 2,000 cities with populations between 20,000 and 350,000 to create an annual list of the Top 100 Best Places to Live. Rochester ranked 1st on their 2016 version of that list.

What sets the Livability list apart from lists like Outside magazine's The 16 Best Places to Live in the U.S. (where this year Rochester ranked 14th) is its methodology. Where the Outside list is based on soliciting votes (mostly from residents one assumes), Livability's methodology is based on the analysis of more than 40 data points. It ain't bad for social science conscripted into the service of marketing. Livability hopes for a methodology that is "as thorough, tested, rational and transparent as possible." Publishing their method is a big step in that direction and you can judge for yourself what to make of it.

In the creation of their 2016 list, Livability instituted changes in their methodology that seems to have accrued in Rochester's favor. For even though Rochester's place on the list rose to 1st in 2016, its aggregate "Livability Score" dropped 11 points from 2015 when it was ranked 2nd. Fortunately for Rochester, last year's list topper Madison, Wisconsin saw its "Livability Score" drop 54 points placing it in 3rd place in 2016.*

Livability is well-aware that changes in its methods, data sources, modeling, etc. can and do result in changes in how a city ranks. Did Madison somehow get 54 points less livable over the course of a year? Did Rochester get 11 points worse? Do those questions even make sense? Probably not, but the matter of measuring matters.

Counting anything starts first with an accounting of what counts enough to get counted.

By all accounts

We like to keep score. It's one way we bring order to chaos. As William Gass observes, "we always feel threatened when confronted with something we cannot count." Thus we create and defend "a connection between what William James called the buzzing, blooming confusion of normal consciousness" and "the clear and orderly silences of mathematics." A connection that gives us "meaning, security, and management, in one lump sum."

The "buzzing, blooming confusion" that sometimes characterizes local planning is slowly moving toward connection with "clear and orderly silence" that gives us "meaning, security, and management." Most especially, management.

So it is, we find Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith speaking in her role as chair of the DMCC board at their 9.25.15 meeting, saying:
And then, the last thing is metrics and I know that we are all in - as in we in our family - that we are in violent agreement about the importance of really measuring our progress and thinking clearly about how we want to do that. And so, I am looking forward in the coming months about getting down to the specifics and the details... about how we're going to do that. And start to look at it so that our board and the community and the city and the county and all of our partners have a dashboard that we can look at that really gives a sense that are we at red or are we at green or are we in the middle in terms of the progress we are making.
And so it is that the DMC Economic Development Agency is charged in 2016 to meet monthly "with leaders in community services as well as the six policy areas of focus (Energy/sustainability, healthy communities, historic preservation, affordable housing, targeted businesses, and arts and culture), to identify a 'Quality of Life' scorecard that considers the public opinion."

Some months ago, during public hearings on the DMC plan approval, the Olmsted County Public Services Advisory Board testified to the city that implementation of the plan should employ measures that:
Include the “social determinants of health” (housing, education, income, transportation, others) as key factors in evaluating development proposals and future measures for health status and improvement.
Similarly, the Community Networking Group (CNG), comprised of private non-profit and public human and social service providers, local philanthropies, and elected officials who have met informally since April 2013, proposed that the DMCC board employ "Metrics that gauge progress toward positive health and social outcomes that promote and sustain an inclusive and healthy community."

Recently, participants of CNG met with Minnesota Compass to discuss developing a community dashboard. This discussion included DMC EDA staff and members from Journey to Growth.

These conversations about measures are just now starting in earnest. They will deepen as interested parties get down to "specifics and details." They will broaden as the scope of parties interested expand.

A counting coup

The various and varied accounts of what counts enough to get counted will as they develop give rise to the "clashes between orders, confusions of realms" Gass describes. Interested parties bring interests that seek to be served and measures that serve those interests. These measures will at times conflict and compete. (E.g., "heads in beds" vs the wages of those who make those beds.)

This conversation on what counts enough to get counted is the most important one we will have regarding economic growth. The metrics that emerge will give shape and substance to the community we become. These metrics will by their nature and function announce where we think we are heading and gauge when we might say we have arrived.

Determining what counts also determines who gets to do the counting. It is not for nothing these things get called "dashboards." Metrics are created for those who sit in the driver's seat. Determining what counts enough to get counted has much to do with who is empowered to take a turn at the wheel.

As Gass reminds us, we need to be mindful of "the relation of any order to the chosen good." All metrics are imbued with human values. Measures of livability, whatever form they take or function they serve, are moral choices. Whatever order we create reflects not "what is good" but rather "what good we choose." Let's hope we choose a good we can hold in common. Let's hope we measure up to making that choice.


*The city to watch is Bellevue, Washington: gaining only 10 points in its "Livability Score" but moving from 14th in 2015 to 2nd in 2016 due to Madison's plummet.

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