In a recent series on this blog, Anita Brown-Graham detailed four drivers of change affecting our workforce: demographics, automation, business model changes, and the rise of the individual. Governments are dealing with these same drivers in ways that extend beyond the workforce. On this shifting ground of disruption and uncertainty stand local government leaders, who know they need to prepare for the future but often feel they have little guidance on how current trends are likely to affect their communities in the medium- and long-term. This is especially true in smaller, less wealthy jurisdictions without planning staff or the financial means to contract for such services. Big or small, rural or urban or somewhere in-between, communities of all size and type need to be “future ready.”

What Does It Mean to Be Future Ready?

Elected and appointed officials have a dual duty to the citizens they serve: (1) manage the present and (2) prepare for the future. The latter requires the ability to see how what is happening now foreshadows big changes to come. For example, Dr. Jim Johnson of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School researches and advises leaders on the coming impacts of the “silver tsunami,” as the aging Baby Boomer generation requires planners to consider changes to local facilities and services in communities with growing senior populations. This same kind of forward-looking analysis can be applied to many other indicators measuring things that communities care about — health, education, the economy, the workforce — and is key to determining whether a community is future ready.

What should local leaders be doing to ensure their jurisdictions are well-positioned for the future? Extensive literature exists for practitioners of local government management and planning. Much less exists on how to position communities for future events and trends unknown in the present. Still, basic tenets of wise administration still apply. One is to make decisions based on the best information available. This means collecting data and observing trend lines, so that a trend’s durability can be assessed and inflection points that signal key changes observed. It is also necessary to consider data from a variety of sources, and to combine this data for greater insight when possible. This often means breaking down silos among agencies and programs in order to integrate data. But once the right data is collected, how can it be monitored efficiently for decision-making?

Data Dashboards Can Help Local Leaders Keep Up — and Plan Ahead

One way for local leaders to manage up-to-date information — with an eye toward the future — is with a data dashboard, a useful tool for visualizing current conditions as well as worrying trends. The simplest dashboards allow for straightforward reporting of conditions, but more sophisticated ones add historical and other interpretive layers that tell local leaders what the data means for their jurisdiction.

In her fascinating article “Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard,” Shannon Mattern declares this to be the age of “dashboard governance”:

Futuristic control rooms have proliferated in dozens of global cities. Baltimore has its CitiStat Room, where department heads stand at a podium before a wall of screens and account for their units’ performance. The Mayor’s office in London’s City Hall features a 4×3 array of iPads mounted in a wooden panel, which seems an almost parodic, Terry Gilliam-esque take on the Brazilian Ops Center. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron commissioned an iPad app – the “No. 10 Dashboard” (a reference to his residence at 10 Downing Street) – which gives him access to financial, housing, employment, and public opinion data. As The Guardian reported, “the prime minister said that he could run government remotely from his smartphone.”

Mattern traces this development back through decades of increasing analytical sophistication and computational capability. The displays themselves range from straightforward to complex — like your car instrument panel compared to an airline cockpit or a multi-screen mission control. The key is to make the information both accessible and informative, as elected and appointed officials need the ability to access data on drivers of change at their local level but also need guidance on how to interpret the data and explain it to other leaders and the community at large.

Here at the School of Government, our Environmental Finance Center administers an excellent example of a data dashboard, which helps utility managers and local officials analyze residential water and wastewater rates. One component of this interactive dashboard uses an intuitive “green/yellow/red” display to show local leaders which utility metrics are favorable and which represent danger zones.

A second example of a data dashboard comes from Wilson, North Carolina. Wilson 20/20, an organization dedicated to improving the city’s “quality of life, educational opportunities, workforce, and economy,” created a dashboard of fifteen indicators allowing it to track progress and identify areas of community concern. As you can see below, the dashboard employs a simple “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach as a first step to interpreting the data.

A final example of a data dashboard can be found in Cincinnati, Ohio, where city officials are able to visualize indicators and trends related to important local issues like public safety, neighborhood conditions, and fiscal sustainability.

How Can Your Community Use Dashboards to Become Future Ready?

So you want to build a dashboard! The first step is to choose indicators that are relevant to your community. For example, you might want to measure and track your population trends and projections (in-migration/out-migration, birth/death rates); property tax base (commercial and residential); local industry profile and employment trends; crime rate; child poverty rate; demand for public health services; public transit ridership; or even map your broadband internet coverage. Note that a community’s strategic plan is often a good source to consult when selecting indicators.

The following questions are fundamental as you assemble a workable suite of indicators:

  • Is reliable data available?
  • How much interpretation will each data point require?
  • Is there an ability to scale down to smaller communities as well as up to the largest ones?
  • Are there accepted standards for assessing what is good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, green/yellow/red, etc.?
  • How much regular maintenance and updating will each dataset require?
  • Will the dashboard be used primarily for internal analysis, open-access public information, or both?

For more tips on building a community dashboard — and potential pitfalls to avoid — see this smart Q&A between Lou O’Boyle, the former Strategy and Performance Coordinator for Chesterfield County, Virginia, and Dylan Miyake of ClearPoint Strategy.

ncIMPACT is in the early stages of designing a dashboard prototype for eventual use by local communities across North Carolina. Our goal is to compile, display, and interpret quality data collected from reliable sources to help local leaders visualize some of the most important indicators reflecting their current condition — and their future readiness.

Do you have ideas for what should be on a community’s dashboard, or thoughts about what makes a community future ready? Tell us about it in the comments!