What is the purpose of government?
There are countless partial answers. To keep people safe. To support business. To fill in potholes. But what’s the overarching purpose?
That’s what Santa Monica, a community of around 100,000 people just west of Los Angeles, asked itself in 2014. The answer they came to was deceptively simple: to improve the wellbeing of their residents.
It’s feel-good and hard to disagree with—but also vague. In the past, many people have paid lip service to the idea of wellbeing and left it there. But Santa Monica went a step further and put it at the heart of city hall.
Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project set out to define wellbeing, to measure it, and to use the results to overhaul government’s structure and decision-making. They won a $1 million grant from the inaugural Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge to make it a reality.
“It sounds kind of basic – isn’t this what government exists for? – and yet we’re finding that it’s a bit of a pivot from how people are accustomed to thinking about government,” said Julie Rusk, Chief of Civic Wellbeing for City of Santa Monica. “Ultimately, the goal is to make our policies, investments and partnerships more effective and relevant to people’s lives.”
The meaning of wellbeing
The project started with a definition: what is wellbeing?
“There’s a whole body of research and science out there about what leads to wellbeing, both at the individual and community level,” said Rusk. “We were interested in taking that research and having it guide the kind of things we measured. We wanted a people-centred approach.”
“It was built on wellbeing work that had come before, but it was distinctive in several ways,” said Anita Chandra, a director at the Rand Corporation. “For example, a lot of previous wellbeing work was wrapped up in the idea of happiness, which is an important but narrow construct, not complete enough for what a city can do. We chose to measure the wellbeing environment—all things that cities can intervene on.”
The resulting framework entailed city demographics and six branches of wellbeing.
Community captures the social connection to one’s neighbourhood. Place and planet refer to the role of physical infrastructure and natural environment. Health includes the physical, the emotional and the spiritual. Learning measures the opportunities to learn throughout one’s lifecycle. Relatedly, economic opportunity features strongly. And, finally, there is outlook: how do people feel?
By all measures
Those six areas are the pillars of the index. The city filled it with three main sources of data.
“The first was a survey,” said Chandra. “The second was city administrative data. And the third was social media data from Twitter and Foursquare and so on.”
The first email survey was sent out in September 2014. It was around 15-minutes long, in English and Spanish, and the response rate was around 11%, which is roughly comparable to internet surveys.
“This is a cold call kind of email survey, so you wouldn’t expect high response rates,” Chandra added. “But we use weighting techniques that allow us to create representativeness in the sample.”
For now, the survey is sent out once every two years. But they have toyed with the idea of running smaller surveys more frequently via text message. “That would be the logical next step, to have this much more dynamic engagement and to allow the people to gauge in real-time the action that the city takes,” said Chandra.
The second source of information was preexisting city data. This came from all over the place: they delved into census, crime, health, and even library usage data. In the process, they had crucial conversations with leaders across government. They took the opportunity to get broad buy-in and to convince departments to improve their data collection.
“We had to have conversations about what they’re gathering about the health and wellbeing of residents—and what they’re missing,” said Chandra. “These conversations have ultimately been transformative in terms of cleaning up the data they collect and making sure it actually gives them signal value on wellbeing.”
The idea is that city departments, with a little help, could become a deep and sustainable source of wellbeing data.
“More is not better when it comes to data,” Chandra added. “We need to help people understand the value of parsimony. It’s not that we don’t want diversified data sources, or that we aren’t excited about big data and machine learning, but you have to understand that you’re also working with people and organisations doing policy work. The data people have to remember that there is a big cultural divide—and we’re bridging that divide in city government right now.”
Putting the index at the heart of decision-making
By 2016, Santa Monica possessed perhaps the most comprehensive wellbeing data pool of any city in the world. They began to disaggregate it to look at race, age, neighbourhood and so on.
The resulting insights were shared publicly with simple explanations and infographics. The index and its updating results continue to be available to anyone online.
In general, the findings were predictably good. Santa Monica is, after all, famous for its standard of life. But not all was well.
Wellbeing varied significantly by zip code. Residents were not as healthy as expected and many lacked strong social connections to their neighbours. Almost a third were stressed some or all of the time—housing in particular worried one in five. And, though many residents volunteer and vote, few felt they had any real influence on decision-making in government.
“Early on we were talking about end use and application—it was never just a measurement project,” said Chandra. “The city council voted for the wellbeing index to be the framework by which they make decisions and allocate budget.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of city governments and I can tell you it is not unusual for them to work without an overarching or integrative framework,” Chandra added. “That is not uncommon at all.”
“It’s usually piecemeal: there are some folks who care about sustainability, some who care about resilience to disasters, some who want to make it elderly friendly,” said Chandra. “That creates silos and doesn’t lend itself to coherent outcomes. So what this will hopefully do is create a one-stop shop for guiding everything. That’s what’s radical about this: it could be the touchpoint for accountability.”
It will take a few budget cycles to fully embed the approach in the culture of city planning, budgeting and operations. So it may be a few years yet before the impact on residents becomes clear. But examples of ways the index is shifting policy are starting to emerge.
“To give a granular example, we looked at low rates of fruit and vegetable consumption and overlaid that data with food stamp enrolment levels,” said Rusk. “We found that in one neighbourhood, both were low, and yet there was a vibrant farmer’s market which locals weren’t using. So we doubled the value of food stamps there, made them easier to sign up for, and paired that with having some of the parent groups in the neighbourhood do cooking classes. We took one small finding and used it to reorient our actions so we could move the needle on healthy eating.”
Replicability is at the heart of the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge: the ideas are meant to spread.
The City of Santa Monica has designed a guidebook specifically to help other cities adopt a wellbeing index of their own. Dozens have expressed an interest in adopting their survey. In the US, they are working with Miami and Louisville right now.
It’s certainly true that Santa Monica is a special place. It’s relatively small, wealthy and progressive. If installing wellbeing at the centre of government was to work anywhere, it would be there. But still: the act of defining the goals of government and measuring progress against them is something all leaders should aim for.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Ian D. Keating, City of Santa Monica)