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Q&A Series on the Leading STAR Community Indicators

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STAR Communities partnered with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) to develop an online dashboard of 21 key sustainability indicators. We connected with two of the Leading Indicators project leads, Leslie Ethen and Catherine Hurley, to get their insight into the development process and project goals.

Why do you think sustainability managers are interested in a tool for annual reporting?

Local government staff and community members alike want to know if their actions are helping to improve communities and foster a strong local economy, vibrant community, and healthy environment. Evaluating performance on an annual basis is very important so we can make adjustments to policies, programs, and services. USDN members involved in the project wanted to look at community-scale performance to guide our continuous improvement efforts.

We also wanted a tool that would allow communities to submit their local data in a consistent manner that could be compared across communities. Every week it seems like another website or organization is creating a “Top Best Cities” list, but their data sources are unclear or do not incorporate local data. USDN members wanted a place for local data and stories to be the basis for comparison, using a transparent, data-driven system built specifically for local governments.

Why did USDN members decide to reach out to STAR Communities to create the tool?

STAR Communities administers the STAR Community Rating System, which is the go-to framework for measuring community-scale performance around economic, social, and environmental dimensions of a community. It was built by and for local governments, in partnership with national experts and thought leaders in community sustainability. There are many rating systems that measure performance of individual projects, but none are equal in scale and diversity of topics to STAR. In any area you can think of, STAR has already developed a detailed methodology for measuring and tracking community-scale performance. USDN members wanted to leverage this tremendous body of work and use the common STAR methodology for measuring community performance.

How were the indicators chosen?

The project team held a workshop in Washington DC where local government and STAR staff came together to select the indicators from the STAR Community Rating System. First, we used the 44 STAR objectives as a starting point to evaluate which topics on which we would focus. Questions we asked included: How easily accessible is the data? Are there any obvious barriers for communities to report on this area? What areas represent a meaningful sample of data points to explain economic, social, and environmental sustainability? STAR staff provided information on how many of the certified communities to date had submitted on each item and whether the information was available from a national source, such as census data, or a local source.

After a lot of discussion, we completed a “dot voting” exercise where each of the project team members used circular stickers to vote for the indicators that were most important to them.  It was very interesting because the top list of 21 indicators naturally split across all seven areas of the STAR Community Rating system and included a combination of local and publicly available data sources.

Why is it important for cities to report on the Leading Indicators?

Reporting on the Leading STAR Community Indicators has many benefits. First, communities can see their annual performance across the 21 indicators. The online tool provides a visual representation of the data, either in a line, bar, or pie chart format. Communities can track their progress over time and compare their results to national averages when applicable. Second, communities can plot the data, comparing up to 10 communities on any indicator in the system. This allows communities to see how they are performing against others who have reported and identify communities to look for best practices. Third, communities are taking a lot of important local actions; reporting with the Leading STAR Community Indicators will help share the successful results of that good work. Comparisons across communities will also highlight areas of needed investment and potential for partnership across sectors.

The Leading Indicators pilot program has just concluded, and all active STAR subscribers can now create their 2016 indicators report. The indicators dashboard will be available to the public in early 2017. 

Ethen is the Planning and Sustainability Manager in Tucson, AZ and Hurley is the Sustainability Manager for the City of Evanston, IL and a member of STAR’s Board of Directors. 

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