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Colorado Springs, Quality of Life, and Finding a Holistic Model

By Will Cook

This is the fifth in our performance measurement series. Read the first, second, third, and fourth articles.

Colorado Springs has been involved with the annual production of a document called the Quality of Life Indicators (QLI) report for just over five years.  The report is unique partially because of the breadth of information it includes.  The QLI combines external community statistics on everything from bike ridership to education levels, supplemented by city data in areas like public transit use and high school reading levels.  The report also includes benchmarking with similarly sized cities.  The result is less a report on the city’s functional performance than it is, as the name suggests, a description of the quality of life residents enjoy relative to comparable geographies.

The actual document is available in hardcopy, PDF, or via a virtual e-reader on an externally hosted website (qlireport.org).  There is no portal, dashboard, or other interactive tool.  However, the report’s existence primarily as a hardcopy document is more a response to the needs of the Colorado Springs community than it is a cost saving measure.  The city’s population is older than many of its peers and residents typically indicate a preference for physical documentation.  The report is distributed by the city and the other community organizations involved with its publication. 

The level of community involvement in generating the QLI report also makes it unique among the performance reporting programs discussed.  The QLI is produced in partnership with the local United Way and a network of community leaders.  Nick Kittle, (now former) Administrative Services and Innovation Manager for Colorado Springs, emphasizes that the city plays one part among many in the report’s production.  Each section of the document is organized by a sub-committee composed of a variety of stakeholders including public servants, business leaders, and community activists.  The subcommittees have responsibility for overseeing the formation of their section.  They also determine how the reporting will change year over year, bringing an understanding of the communities wants and needs to this process.

The involvement of the United Way in particular, the report’s sponsoring organization, has been present from the beginning of the QLI.  External institutional support removed much of the administrative burden from the city, but it also played an important role in making the QLI a more holistic model.  Rather than having the city lead report production, Colorado Springs was engaged as a key participant alongside other members of the community.  The model required that they agree to fully participate by providing the measures determined necessary by the committees governing publication.  Rather than the city pushing data out to the public, a group of key stakeholders is now actively engaged each year in determining what city data is needed to form a holistic picture of quality of life in the city.  

The advice Kittle provides for others entering this field is to start small and non-controversial, especially when partnering with outside organizations and community groups.  A community led process requires that a city surrender a lot of editorial oversight.  By having city leadership commit to the process up front on non-controversial items, an ongoing process can be established which is responsive to the community’s needs.  Later, as the community drives the direction of the report, future versions may grow organically to include “tougher” city issues.  Community led growth also ensures the report is providing only information that the community values and that the report isn’t acting as a vehicle for city leadership to market select policies.

The challenges associated with this type of grassroots-led reporting are largely front-loaded.  Time and resources are required to develop an initial reporting infrastructure and secure the appropriate partnerships.  Developing a solid reporting structure is especially important as committee members must represent the interests of broader citizen populations.  It can be hard for the city, as one participant in the process, to later alter this structure if they find things have gone awry.  An effective grassroots network is particularly important for cities like Colorado Springs with populations that are less tech-savvy.  The online tools and techniques used to measure citizen interest in other cities (whether via social media or in-site tracking) aren’t as relevant for a population that doesn’t have a large online footprint. 

Other cities, however, have had success relying on technology enabled feedback collection.  The next article in this series will show how the District of Columbia has used the tool Grade.DC.gov to improve internal performance and external performance reporting.

About the Author

Will Cook

Will Cook is a writer on civic innovation and technology, and a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School.  He has worked with the U.S. Department of Labor on open government initiatives and with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Middle East and North Africa office on regional economic development. Prior to the Kennedy School, Will worked in Lebanon with UNRWA and development NGOs on educational advancement for refugee populations, and in Chicago with Ernst & Young’s Advisory practice on technology and governance projects.

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