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A Profile in Bold Leadership: Rick Cole

Under the guidance of City Manager Rick Cole, Santa Monica, California has redefined what it means to look out for residents’ health and welfare. Through its Wellbeing Project, a 2013 Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge winner, the city has created a Wellbeing Index that not only provides a baseline understanding of all it takes for people to thrive, it also helps the city measure its residents’ wellbeing and apply that insight to city plans and policies.

When Santa Monica learned, for example, that lower-income residents were eating fewer fruits and vegetables than their higher-income neighbors, it worked to provide food-assistance benefits at the local farmers market. Similarly, when the Index showed that one in five young adults are lonely all or most of the time, the city funded a new health and wellness center that will provide mental-health treatment, yoga, meditation, substance-abuse support, among other offerings, at a local high school.

At first glance it might look like a new-age approach to governance, the Wellbeing Project is grounded in data, science, and an integral partnership with research and analysis experts at RAND Corporation. We recently caught up with City Manager Cole to discuss the Index, how it’s helping guide city policies and programs, and what kind of opportunities it presents for leaders in other cities.

How and why did Santa Monica land on wellbeing as a priority for City Hall?

Our Wellbeing Index was borne out of a number of tragic events involving young people in our city. We had several instances of teen suicides and gun violence. As our community responded to those events, we also brought together people from throughout the city to try to figure out how, in a place like Santa Monica, with so many resources and programs for young people, violence and suicide could still be so prevalent.

What we quickly realized was that, despite our best intentions, we had no coordinated way of assessing how well we were doing or how we were helping young people. And without that information, we weren’t able to identify the gaps in service that some of our most vulnerable residents were clearly falling through. So we worked together in partnership with community stakeholders to develop a Youth Wellbeing Report Card that looks at Santa Monica’s children’s wellbeing across four key areas, ranging from mental and physical health to school achievement. Once we pulled our community stakeholders and put all of the data we’d each been collecting together, we quickly saw that this approach helped us identify valuable new insights. This experience with our young people opened our eyes to the possibility of indexing the wellbeing of the whole city, and the Mayors Challenge helped us make that possible.

The project was led by Julie Rusk and incubated in our Community and Cultural Services Department.  She assembled an amazing team within that department who worked with the community and consultants that drew on both international research and discourse as well as deep reservoirs of local knowledge of our assets and challenges.  Julie continues to lead the project as Santa Monica’s first Chief Civic Wellbeing Officer with Lisa Parson as Project Manager and their team now in the City Manager’s Office.

How can wellbeing help a city?

Cities traditionally define their function as “providing services,” which are typically legacy services —libraries, parks, police, fire, etcetera. Each of those services, though, was created in response to specific problems in specific times in specific places. Instead of taking for granted that our role in local government is to perform services, we define our role in the same spirit as those who originally pioneered public services: enhancing the health, safety, and wellbeing of our residents and the resilience and sustainability of our community. Ultimately in a democracy, our work doesn’t matter if citizens can’t connect what we do with how it improves their quality of life. After all, Santa Monica’s motto is “Populus felix in urbe felici – a happy people in a happy place.” Local government exists not to provide services but to promote wellbeing – and the index is the yardstick for measuring what success looks like and our progress toward measurable outcomes.

“We think wellbeing is a very useful yardstick for making the tough decisions about allocating scarce resources, prioritizing programs and shaping policies and measuring actual results.” — Rick Cole

But how do you actually measure wellbeing?

The subtitle of the Wellbeing Project is “Define, Measure, Act.” The first step was to define, and this was a big lift at the beginning. To make sure that we captured the key factors connected to wellbeing, we worked with Anita Chandra from the RAND Corporation and the New Economics Foundation. Together we convened 18 experts from across the globe who have a good understanding of what contributes to wellbeing. Out of these partnerships we developed a framework for wellbeing – focused on outlook, community, place, learning, health, and economic opportunity – that we know the city can impact.

Next, we set out to collect the data on how our residents measure their wellbeing according to these six dimensions. That included our own existing data, culling insights from the Census, Zillow, and social media, and conducting a citywide Wellbeing Survey. By combining these multiple levels of data, we’ve been able to identify new insights and learn things that you can’t from just one source of data. Once analyzed, this information ultimately becomes the Wellbeing Index, with hundreds of findings that give us a high-resolution snapshot of our residents’ lives.

Are there people who see the word “wellbeing” and think this is a well-meaning but “touchy feely” approach to governing? How does this index help your city address its hardest problems head on

California local government law defines the role of cities as promoting “the health, safety, and welfare” of citizens. The Constitution was written to “promote the general welfare.” It’s a mistake to focus on what we do instead of the outcomes we aim to achieve. In private business, companies that focus too narrowly on their existing business models are soon overtaken by changes in technology, demography and consumer behavior. Government is not immune to change – so defining the “business” of cities as providing specific legacy services is short-sighted. Our fire department, for example, responds to nearly 16,000 emergency calls a year. Fewer than 100 of those are for actual fires. Does mean they’re still in the fire business? Or are they instead in the business of providing safety, health, and wellbeing? We think wellbeing is a very useful yardstick for making the tough decisions about allocating scarce resources, prioritizing programs, and shaping policies and measuring actual results. Our hardest problems include homelessness, traffic, and maintaining a diverse and inclusive community in the face of global and regional market forces. When you take a closer look at Santa Monica’s dimensions of wellbeing, and how we’ve defined community wellbeing, you can see it addresses our most serious issues, through the lens of the long-term, sustainable dimensions of what makes a community livable and allows all residents to thrive.

For too long, we’ve relied on government by anecdote – stories about what we think works or doesn’t. The Wellbeing Index frames policy decisions around data and outcomes, not emotions and inputs. For example, community development planning is a huge issue here. Before the Index, conversations between the city and residents were trapped in stale notions about what people believed was good or bad. Data from the Index opens the dialogue up for fresh thinking about what is actually happening. It’s not a panacea, but armed with actual data, city planners were able to spark conversations throughout the community, with facts in hand about where the Index found strengths, and where we identified areas that needed something to change, and to orient our interventions around that data. The community appreciated that approach – we weren’t there just telling them to trust us, we were there to be straightforward about what the challenges were. And because the Wellbeing Index is built in part with resident data, their voices were part of our assessment from the start. Again, it didn’t produce magical consensus, but it anchored dialogue in facts, not fears and fantasies.

Now that you know where your residents stand in terms of wellbeing, how do you put this information to work for policymaking?

To be honest, the first work around Wellbeing and the Index was disconnected from the day-to-day operations of city government and the processes that allocate resources, including budgets and work plans. It soon became clear, however, that we needed to tie the two together and focus on outcomes as the lodestar of policy making.

Just as government has relied too much on anecdote to measure success, policy making has relied too much on political interests and ideologies. If we clearly define wellbeing and use data to measure how we are impacting the factors that promote wellbeing, we move away from making policies to please specific political constituencies and toward making policies that produce broad positive outcomes. It hasn’t been an easy shift, but our wellbeing work meshes closely with the national movement Bloomberg Philanthropies is helping lead around managing performance; making data-driven decisions; collaborating for collective impact across departments, agencies and sectors; and measuring results. Santa Monica has made a deep and meaningful commitment to make the Wellbeing outcomes the framework for all operational and policy decision-making. At first, we started by developing pilot programs to address challenges identified through the index, such as increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, but we just shifted the city’s goals and budgeting process to match all work to the wellbeing dimensions. We also brought the Index work into the City Manager’s Office as a permanent fixture. It’s a big undertaking, and we have hired a chief performance officer to help track our progress.

How could something like the Wellbeing Index help other cities?

The Wellbeing Index has caused a recalibration in the way that Santa Monica’s city staff think about their jobs. By framing our work according to the dimensions of wellbeing, we’ve changed the focus from what services departments provide to what outcomes our interdepartmental efforts are producing. This creates remarkable opportunities for collaboration, not only between departments but with other community sectors as well. If you organize your work around community outcomes, that inevitably forces discussion around harnessing together the efforts of business, civic groups, nonprofit organizations, religious institutions and other stakeholders. Instead of isolated problems (crime, at risk youth, poverty, traffic), we’re seeing the broader context for building community capacity for sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing. Like any innovation, there is a danger in “copying” our work instead of adapting it to local circumstances. I think any city could benefit from the Wellbeing Index and in what it offers to our city: a chance to bring back greater purpose and clarity to our work in public service, the ability to communicate clearly about where we are and where we want to go, and an opportunity to develop new ways to solve persistent challenges through collective impact.