Department of Family and Community Services
Occasional paper No. 3
The identification and analysis of indicators of
community strength and outcomes
Alan Black and Philip Hughes
Edith Cowan University
A report to the Department of Family and Community Services
© Commonwealth of Australia 2001
This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Commonwealth, available from AusInfo. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to the Manager, Legislative Services, AusInfo, GPO Box 1920, Canberra ACT 2601.
About the authors
Alan Black is the Foundation Professor of Sociology/Anthropology and Director of the Centre for Social Research, Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.
Philip Hughes is a research fellow at Edith Cowan University and a senior research officer with the Christian Research Association.
Any views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Government, the Minister for Family and Community Services, the Department of Family and Community Services or any Commonwealth department.
Department of Family and Community Services
PO Box 7788
Canberra Mail Centre ACT 2610
Telephone:1300 653 227
Executive summary 5
The background and aims of the project 8
Types of community 9
Strength of communities 13
Evaluation of the notions of a strong community 25
Community resources 31
Community processes 35
The scope of this project 38
Domain: Natural capital 43
Domain: Produced economic capital 46
Domain: Human capital 51
Domain: Social and institutional capital 55
Indicators related to outcomes 113
Further general considerations in choosing and using indicators 123
Applicability to various types of community 124
Direct relevance to public policy 125
Availability of data 125
Practicality of collecting new data 126
Strengths and weaknesses of communities: concluding comments 127
1 Types of capital to which Hart applies the concept of sustainability 18
2 Analytical framework 36
3 Living standards model 53
1 Geographic groups with which Australians identify first and second 14
2 Adams’ outline of differences between healthy and unhealthy communities 28
3 Elements of wellbeing and desirable community outcomes 32
4 Community scaling tool: equity 106
5 Neighbourhood sense of community scale (11- and 15-item versions) 110
The Commonwealth Government’s Stronger Families and Communities Strategy was announced in April 2000 with a commitment by the Government of $240 million to community-driven capacity building, prevention and early intervention initiatives.
The Strategy is a significant and practical new policy direction for Australian families and their communities. It aims at responding to the immediate needs of families and communities as well as to ongoing changes in communities over time. To do this, the Strategy is furthering the development of the evidence base and an understanding of community strength to inform policy development and to support the practical implementation of further policy initiatives.
The Strategy has presented challenges to FaCS to develop both an appropriate evaluation framework to measure its success and tools to actually measure community strength. Accompanying this is the need to continue to build the evidence base around the issue of community strength to inform future policy development.
While there has been a considerable amount of national and international research around many elements of community strength, and a variety of indicators have been put forward as possible measurement tools, there does not appear to be a systematic and useable way of measuring and understanding the strength of Australian communities.
In June 2000, FaCS sought proposals for a comprehensive review and analysis of literature on existing work on indicators of community strength and to provide some direction for further developmental work on indicators and measures of community strength.
Professor Alan Black and Dr Philip Hughes of Edith Cowan University were the consultants employed to undertake this project.
Their report is an important element of work contributing to the Strategy. It provides a sound analysis of the complexity of attributes that affect and shape communities. The report’s information and analysis of indicators of community strength now allow us to move to the next stage in this important work, that is to develop and field test indicators which can measure the strength of individual Australian communities.
I look forward to the outcomes of this important next stage of work under the Stronger Families and Communities Strategy.
Department of Family and Community Services
After a review of relevant literature, this report defines community strength as the extent to which resources and processes within a community maintain and enhance both individual and collective wellbeing in ways consistent with the principles of equity, comprehensiveness, participation, self-reliance and social responsibility. This definition implies that an assessment of community strength involves taking account of resources, processes and outcomes. These are dynamically interrelated and there are feedback loops from outcomes to resources and processes.
Most people identify with and participate in a mosaic of geographical communities and communities of interest. In most instances, individual and collective wellbeing is enhanced through this variety of communities. While it may sometimes be appropriate to look at how a particular community is enhancing individual and collective wellbeing, it may be more appropriate in other instances to look at the extent to which wellbeing is enhanced through this mosaic of communities.
This report is concerned primarily with social and institutional capital; however, resources, processes and outcomes pertinent to the assessment of community strength include all of the following:
1. Natural capital
While the natural assets of a community, in terms of natural resources, ecosystems and aesthetic features, can contribute to the strength of the community, these assets vary considerably from one community to another. The challenge for the strength of communities is to use and develop the natural capital in ways which sustain and even enhance the natural capital.
2. Produced economic capital
Produced economic capital includes what a community produces in terms of manufactured or harvested goods, services that can be traded or sold, and knowledge that has economic value. It includes financial capital and the ‘hardware’ of infrastructure of communities. Produced economic capital can be measured through audits which provide a picture of resources and infrastructure at a particular point in time and through measures of changes in production over time. From the perspective of community strength, attention needs to be given to the extent to which produced economic capital is owned within, or available to, a community and is spread among the individuals within the community.
3. Human capital
Human capital includes the capacity of people to contribute to the community. It is dependent on their motivation to do so and their ability to do so as measured by their skills and knowledge, their capacity to adjust to changing circumstances, sometimes by acquiring new skills and knowledge, and the management of health and disability.
4. Social and institutional capital
Social and institutional capital includes the patterns and the qualities of the processes through which people engage with each other and with various organisations and expert systems (that is, systems of specialised expertise, such as retail systems, public utility systems, financial, legal, educational, health and other systems). Bearing on these processes are community structures and features, such as leadership and means of managing conflict.
Patterns of social processes
The patterns of processes that enhance community strength include social participation, both in terms of bonds with family members and close friends, and bridges with acquaintances, as well as patterns of interaction with strangers.
Community strength is seen in the extent to which people provide personal support for one another through bonds of family or friendship. It is seen, too, in the extent to which people engage in wider networks, ideally crossing boundaries of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, social class and education. Further, community strength is seen in links that people have with organisations and in the ability of individuals to negotiate and obtain access to the resources and services of organisations and expert systems. Access depends not only on the knowledge and skills of individuals but also on the transparency and responsiveness of organisations and systems.
Another process contributing to community strength is civic participation. This includes activities in which individuals work cooperatively for the sake of others or the sake of the community as a whole, through paid or voluntary work, through civic groups and activities, and through processes such as voting.
Some indicators of social participation and civic participation can be derived from information held by various organisations. However, much social and civic participation, including voluntary work, occurs informally. It would generally be easier to measure such patterns through the aggregate responses of individuals to surveys.
Qualities of social processes
The qualities of social processes are quite as important to community strength as is their quantity. Community strength is dependent on the extent to which there is trust and trustworthiness within bonds, bridges and links with organisations and systems, and in relation to strangers with whom one might deal. Trust that people will act according to their word, in accordance with social rules and norms, and will take into account the needs and interests of others in their actions, and the extent to which people act in such ways, enhances interaction, cooperation and community activities of many kinds. So also do attitudes of altruism and reciprocity, attitudes in which the wellbeing of others and the wellbeing of the community are given high priority. Measures of these qualities may look at reports of trust and trustworthiness, of other-oriented and community-minded behaviour and attitudes.
Having shared norms, ideals and purposes and a desire to pursue cooperative and community ideals and purposes also contributes to the strength of community, advancing interaction and cooperative activity. One issue in measuring cooperative activity is that special issues and concerns, even perceived weaknesses in community life, may bring people together. Sometimes it takes widely perceived problems to activate the processes in which the strength of community becomes apparent.
Community strength is enhanced by a sense of community. It is weakened when sections of a community feel that they are marginalised or excluded from its activities and benefits, and particularly from its decision-making processes. Thus, inclusive attitudes such as tolerance of diversity and provision of equality of opportunity contribute to community strength.
Attitudes of self-reliance and the ability to develop local solutions to local problems are also important indicators of community strength.
Structures governing social processes
Structures that govern and may enhance social processes include effective leadership and mechanisms for managing community conflict. Leadership that consults, develops appropriate and effective visions and strategies, and which motivates collective action can contribute greatly to community strength. While a certain level of controversy or conflict within a community may indicate vibrancy and social engagement, conflict needs to be managed to ensure that it does not become disruptive of community.
5. Outcomes in individual and collective wellbeing
These may be measured in a variety of ways:
subjective measures of wellbeing;
indicators of numbers falling below basic standards of wellbeing in areas such as material possessions, health, safety and maintenance of intimate relationships;
indicators of unfulfilled needs or demands;
measures of average levels and of the degree of variance in levels of wellbeing within a community; and
assessments of the extent to which resources and infrastructure are being maintained and enhanced for the continued addressing of individual and collective wellbeing.
In choosing and using indicators, attention should be given to their validity, reliability and applicability to various types of community. The set of indicators should be comprehensive in scope, yet as simple as possible without endangering validity and reliability. Direct relevance to public policy is a further consideration.
It should be noted that the critical factors in the strengths and weaknesses of a community may vary from one community to another. Much more empirical work is needed to identify how factors relate to one another and which factors contribute most significantly to the quality of life in particular types of communities.