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What Constitutes Quality of Life?

A city manager once told me that the only goal established for his community is ‘To Achieve Quality of Life for all Citizens.’ While a commendable vision, in my view it is hardly a strategic goal that belongs in a strategic plan. I didn’t win many points when I asked him to list the criteria the city had established to measure quality of life or to mark when the desired level was achieved. In essence, the answer was something like, ‘We’ll know it when we see it.’

Megan McArdle has written a great article in the November 2009 issue of The Atlantic that addresses one element of the quality of life question. Titled Misleading Indicator, the article addresses the national fixation on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the fundamental measure of America’s progress and well being. While GDP is the accepted measure of the Nation’s total annual production (goods and services produced annually), it has virtually nothing to do with the more basic question, ‘How are we doing?’ As McArdle notes, “It counts the dollar value of our output, but not the actual improvement in our lives, or even our economic condition.”

In communities across America, questions abound about how people are faring during this transformational era. With a re-centering economy that is grappling with rising energy, food, healthcare, and infrastructure costs, is it still possible to have a great life? In middle urban and suburban America can families and individuals achieve happiness, fulfillment, joy, harmony, and security? Do these ingredients comprise a quality life?

If one poses the question: ‘Are you better off than you were five years ago?’ there is the ever present slippery slope associated with the common response, “Based on what?’

Local government leaders must attend to much more than local productivity, job creation, economic development, and preservation of tax revenues. Is it possible for a local community to experience a reduced population, an out-migration or decline of business, revenue shortfalls, and more restricted service levels and STILL be a great place to live? Can quality of life be achieved and sustained without consistent growth, renewal, and development?

Certainly, it is a matter of balance but the primary question relies more on philosophical than analytical perspectives. During difficult times, do we pursue the illusion that the community will return to its glory days and that good times are just around the corner? Or that growth is the great panacea? Is it more essential that we maintain public transportation, decent parks, serviceable water and wastewater systems, adequate public safety and good schools while promoting broad-based collaboration, shared resources, private-public partnering, and a sense of community?

 Quality of life questions are best defined by individual communities. As McArdle noted in her article, much of the progress in important, high-value areas of life are invisible to most people. What is essential to some is irrelevant to others. People want stability and predictability. Stable, communicative, honest government at all levels is precious and will become more critical in future years.

Though I have raised the question in prior Blogs, I would again ask, What are the elements of a community that are essential for stability, harmony, and a collaborative spirit? I have seen these characteristics in seemingly poor communities with minimal services, marginal infrastructure, and struggling businesses. In such places, cohesiveness and collegiality are common attributes. Does stability, harmony, and collegiality equate to quality of life? Perhaps. At the very least, they matter as much as GDP, productivity, cost of living, and new housing starts.

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

League of Wisconsin Municipalities Program

On October 14 I had the great pleasure of addressing the opening session of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities annual conference on the subject of Leaving a Legacy. The program’s full title – Leaving a Legacy – A New Age of Change, Challenge, and Strategic Leadership, has become my ‘flagship’ program since 2000, when I first began developing the Leaving a Legacy series for cities and counties.

It must first be said that Wisconsin is a remarkable state. I noted during the program (with apologies for mild pandering) that no matter where one turns in Wisconsin, every scene is suitable for a picture postcard.  I first visited as a 14 year old, and it is as beautiful as ever.

 Of greater importance was the response to several recommendations and gentle admonitions. During the programs I noted that in local communities…

–  Retirements are claiming much of the institutional memory that has taken years to accrue

–   Recruitment to and retention in local government is difficult when top talent tends to gravitate to business (although more people seem to now be seeking the stability of government as the economy struggles)

–  The work of local government is becoming more complex, with greater demand and more public scrutiny that ever before

–  Workloads are growing, budgets are shrinking, staff is being reduced, and pay for those remaining is often substandard

–   Morale issues abound as more people embrace a ‘bunker mentality’

–   Training and professional development is often the first to be cut yet is perhaps the best investment to gain new efficiencies and high productivity while ensuring quality services

 Local government is under siege and is struggling to provide basic services while budgets grow less capable of supporting the historic levels required to maintain health, safety, transportation, economic development, and a social network. It is apparent that Wisconsin mayors, city councils and city administrators are grappling with emerging challenges and are aggressively pursuing innovative and collaborative solutions. Among those I talked with, there is a deep commitment to cooperation and mutual problem solving that would be envied in many other states.

 I emphasized that there exists an “Action-Foresight Dichotomy” among many decision makers. By this, I mean that there is insufficient attention being paid to the future. Attention is typically paid to current operations – trying to get through each day, week or budget cycle with little activity being planned to build the kind of future desired by the community. The central question was, “Are you prepared for the kind of future you see for your community?” I also asked, “What makes a community, department or program relevant and consequential – now and in the future?” Measured relevance stems from impact; every department and program must be able to prove it has positive impact.

 For all local communities, the key question is, “What changes are you willing to make to ensure relevance in the future?” Change will occur no matter what we do, so we might as well plan for a desired future.

 The elected leaders I met in Wisconsin are a dedicated, resilient band of professionals. It is a state that has the tools and traditions to successfully address most critical challenges. For those who have not visited, it is a great place. I was honored to have the opportunity to share thoughts and hope to return soon.

 

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies. Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic conference presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.