Can Well-Being Define What Government Does?

Santa Monica is convinced that it can and should. It's putting a lot of effort into aligning services around that goal.
September 13, 2017
Person looking at the Santa Monica Pier
The Santa Monica Pier (FlickrCC/David Baxendale)
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program
By Jane Wiseman  |  Contributor
Leader of the Institute for Excellence in Government

One of the most important questions a local-government official can ask is "why?" Government typically does today what it did yesterday. But what if local officials looked anew at their cities' goals and measured activities and results against those goals? Such a review might indeed lead to changes in the mix of current activities and identification of new ones.

Santa Monica, Calif., has started on one such path, asking whether what the city is doing is making a difference in people's lives. Santa Monica defined the goal of government as improving the well-being of its residents. The visionary behind this effort is Julie Rusk, who serves as the city's chief well-being officer. "It sounded simple," she said. "Define, understand and measure what matters most: how people are doing. There was just one thing. No one had ever done it before."

Inspired by possibility, the team began planning. Santa Monica's Well-being Project was a winner of the Bloomberg Philanthropies' inaugural Mayors Challenge with a proposal to collect data to measure well-being and use the results to restructure how government responds -- to put money into activities that improve people's lives and stop funding things that make no difference. The city created an index of well-being, plans to carefully measure the benchmarks and its progress towards the goals, and built a performance management system to support the effort.

So how do you define well-being? Santa Monica defined it as providing its residents with the ability to thrive while living a life of health, happiness and meaning. While the definition might not be the same in every region or community, and not every city may decide to elevate well-being as Santa Monica has, the act of intentionally defining the goals of government and measuring progress against them should be a starting point for all leaders.

As Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole put it, "Government exists for a higher purpose than just providing specific services. Its ultimate goal is to help the people in the community thrive. And while well-being may not be a government service per se, it should be the outcome of the collective work of city employees."

What Santa Monica officials are doing is remarkable, not just for the kind of outcomes they have focused on but also for their thoughtful and deliberate process. They leveraged world-class academic insight and received input from 7,000 of the city's 90,000 residents. The Well-being Index has more than 100 data elements drawn from a survey of individual well-being, publicly available social-media data, and city data on everything from crime to voting and library usage. These three forms of data together enable a deeper understanding than any single data source would, and they create a picture of geographic and topical areas where the city is doing well and where it needs to do more. The resulting insights are shared publicly with easy-to-understand explanations and infographics.

The process of collecting and analyzing the data unlocks value in itself. For example, survey results showed a neighborhood with a very low average well-being score, so the city put together a cross-departmental team to come up with innovative solutions. As project manager Lisa Parson said, "We should have been reaching across silos all along, but this got us to the table to collaborate on a concrete project." The project has also put a spotlight on the quality of data. When the initial Well-being Index was released two years ago, some departments whose data was not included decided they wanted to be counted, and many are now, owing to their data-quality improvements.

Lessons from the Santa Monica effort apply broadly to other local governments. Some of the most strategic and data-driven leaders in government today use "stat" programs to manage for results, yet very few have started as Santa Monica has by asking whether the activities they measure produce the larger vision they have for their citizens. In addition, too many stat programs begin from the data on hand. Managers should take a step back from their dashboards to examine these larger questions and ask a provocative "why?" before developing a performance scorecard.

More and more, that is happening, as demonstrated by the attention that Santa Monica's focus on well-being and the methodology it has developed has attracted from other local governments. This spring, more than 40 city leaders met at Bloomberg Philanthropies to discuss application of the project to their communities. Some expressed interest in applying the model to addressing equity gaps, community resilience or economic development. More than a dozen cities are already considering using the survey Santa Monica created.

Today Santa Monica will be releasing an updated Wellbeing Index. It will provide increased transparency along with better tools for accessing the data online, as well as a score for each of the areas of measurement, such as health and economic opportunity. The city's approach is a continuing and evolving one showing that when local officials have a clear vision of community goals, array public services to produce that vision and then measure the results, they can create genuine new value to their residents.