Aug 17, 2011

Events of the last few weeks, and their coverage in the media, are a case-study of the power of indicators to compel attention and action.  We’ve watched the stock market numbers, and the credit ratings; we’ve dissected their day-to-day movements, and discussed the reasons behind their rise and fall.

Some might argue the extent to which these data mirror the actual “health” of the economy (let alone the “well-being” of the nation), but because they are part of a steady stream of data we feel they demand attention, explanation.  They assume a “reality”—some might say too much reality—to the point where we feel, that if we see the numbers going in the “right” direction, then indeed things are getting better.  Or, if they’re headed the “wrong” way, we had better do something about it—and fast!

Now, imagine if other sorts of numbers attracted similar attention and action.  What if the daily ticker, in addition to stock prices, put out the latest high school dropout rates, the latest teen pregnancy rates, the latest data on how often parents read to their young children, the latest data on how many youth are volunteering in their communities, the number of young children ready for school, the number of children receiving routine preventive health care?  What kinds of discussions would we have then?  Certainly the picture of our national well-being would be much fuller, nuanced with both heartening as well as troubling trends.

Of course, we have all these data, and more (see But generally they’re buried far into the back pages of the media, if they appear at all.  And they are released, unfortunately, too infrequently, out-of-sync with real time, with too little coordination, and with too little context.

We are what we measure; and what gets measured, gets done.  We’ve just seen this played out in plain view.  We should be taking just as seriously the measures we already have that quantify what we value in our children, in our families, in our communities. The good news is, we have the infrastructure in place; we just need to elevate these data to the prominence and currency we give to the financial figures—those are important, but incomplete as a picture of our nation’s strengths and challenges.

David Murphey, Senior Research Scientist