The other day, while I watched my kids frolic in the sprinklers in a recently-revived Central Park playground in New York City, I couldn’t help but wonder where belief comes in when we think about measuring social outcomes.
My son, who wouldn’t change into his bathing suit (“it’s too cold to play in the sprinklers”), was pulled in, splash by splash, until he was soaked head to toe, fully dressed. Around us were gaggles of proud parents who reminded me why I love New York: Mexicans and Swedes and Spaniards and Hasidic Jews fussing as happily and with as much ease as the Upper East Side moms with their fancy strollers.
How do you calculate whether or not to revitalize a playground? To turn an expansive but drooping block of concrete and sand into something that glows with the smiles of exuberant children? Can you calculate all the ancillary effects – the extra ice creams purchased, the carousel rides, the trips on the Circle Line and the trip that another family will take across the Atlantic because New York has beautiful public spaces again – and all the hotel rooms filled and show tickets sold and extra restaurant diners?
Somewhere, belief comes into play. Someone believed that public spaces matter, and then they assembled the constituency and the funds and the power to change these spaces for the better. I’m sure that they figured out – by benchmarking and studying and analyzing – the best WAY to refurbish and expand a playground, but none of this analysis told them WHETHER to refurbish a playground, to do something else, or to do nothing.
The world is a complex place, and you never capture the full complexity of a problem nor the nuances of the impact of an intervention. Which means that belief that something’s missing, combined with the guts, determination and gumption to build that new thing, is where real change begins. This is very different from “finding the right answer.”
We in the social sector aspire to better measurement, bemoaning the fact that we lack the clarity of the for-profit world, where a single metric (profits) ostensibly provides as a scorecard of who wins and loses, of what works and what doesn’t (while all the while the big players in the private sector are realizing how poor a yardstick profitability is to measure their own long-term value to customers, employees, communities, and their stakeholders around the world…would that we all converge someday soon). Measurement will allow us to compare one program to another – will allow us to figure out whether the playground we rebuilt was completed cost-effectively than others; in a way that brought in more or fewer kids than others. But we’ll never win at comparing playgrounds to soup kitchens to preschool programs to job training, unless we go all the way back to first principles.
Once we’ve decided what we’re going to do, the numbers can tell us how well we’re doing it. But they’ll never tell us what to do in the first place.