This is a question I've been grappling with for quite some time, and continue to do so.
From what I have observed, two camps have emerged in the ABCD universe -- one which believes that since we have the data linking increased social capital and neighborhood engagement to pretty much every arena of community and individual well-being, this is enough -- and if anything, we with projects can work to keep track of how many connections / associations are forming as a result of asset-base work, but need not obsess over tracking other indicators.
The other camp believes that we do need harder data...
I honestly see both sides but am extremely curious about what a rigorous kind of measurement effort might yield. John, I deeply appreciate your point about not over-emphasizing the role or power of institutions in being the ones "doing" ABCD, and that demanding or prioritizing measurement can have that effect. But I still would love to see some aggregates, even something creative and nontraditional, making visible and indisputable the real results of an ABCD application.
I believe that this could greatly empower the role of ABCD in becoming a better competitor for funding dollars that are out there, but end up being directed toward programs that promise "hard results" -- even though we know that many of these results aren't making long-lasting impact, and residents are very rarely the producers or owners of the work.
For me, the major hangup in actually doing that has been that, as you said Jim, it's like nailing Jello to a wall. The outcomes and benefits of ABCD work are so multi-varied and seemingly unpredictable. My thinking currently is, What about a practice of appreciative, reflective evaluation? In which an effort simply tracks what the participants notice as signs of "Good stuff" that wasn't happening before? I know Broadway and its neighbors experimented with this and--utilizing several neighbors' gifts for counting and observing--began counting smiles over a course of time.
I think the other barrier is one you touched on, John, which is that much ABCD is not spearheaded by institutions -- they may be instigators to some degree, but by its very nature, ABCD work is done by residents. So, in my experience, when we try to introduce programmatic practices like counting and measuring results, ordinary people doing work in their neighborhood in the wonderful organic, adaptive way they do, simply don't want to, don't have time for, or don't see the necessity of such practices... they know and see and feel if something is working or not, and if it is, let's keep on -- if not, switch streams. In the Broadway example, I know that counting smiles was an idea, and a neat one, but I don't believe that it continued.
Currently I'm working with the Abundant Communities Initiative which implements asset-based neighborhood organizing that blends institutional structure with on-the-ground, unpaid block connecting. I'm interested in experimenting with how measurement techniques could be used that don't burden on-the-ground connectors/organizers and citizens, but might become a joyful process that complements their work but is supported by the people being paid in the program. For instance, an appreciative inquiry type gathering where the connectors in a neighborhood reflect together on "what's changing?" and might begin to notice patterns, that begin to be something we can count. Alongside that, one could begin tracking existing indicators of community well-being -- economic, signs of engagement (one example: deed enforcement calls to the City Government), new businesses, school indicators, etc. etc. -- and follow those as the work progresses. (Here we run into whether the "ABCD" work could claim to be the source of any found changes, since other efforts will surely be underway in any given area over a period of time.)
Thanks for this conversation -- this was a good opportunity for me to get my thoughts out!
Would love to hear thoughts on this, or if anyone has tried or heard of anyone trying something similar.