Washington's budget cuts are already causing hand wringing in many communities across the United States, and the promised conversion of most remaining federal aid into block grants could deepen concerns. What's the best way to assess local needs and make the best use of the dollars that escape the budget-cutter's ax?
To answer this question, many mayors and county executives will rely on an analytical tool that's rapidly gaining popularity: local quality-of-life indicators.
The best known and best documented effort to apply such indicators has been going on in Jacksonville, Fla., since 1985. It began as a project of concerned citizens connected with the Jacksonville Community Council. They were worried about out-of-control regional growth reducing the local quality of life. The project has now developed 74 indicators that reflect trends in nine sectors of Duval County life annually. Under the category ''natural environment,'' for example, individual indicators measure the amount of metals in the St. Johns River, the water level in Floridian-Aquifer wells, and days with air-quality in the ''good'' range. Other categories of measurement include the economy, education, public safety, health, social environment, government/politics, culture/recreation, and mobility.
The city of Pasadena, Calif., represents another kind of local quality-of-life project, the Healthy Cities Model. In 1990, Pasadena began a project to develop a Quality of Life Index. Sponsored by the city's Public Health Department, and using grass-roots organizing tools developed by the California Healthy Cities Project, Pasadena's goal was to develop ways of improving the overall population's health.
Consistent with the Healthy Cities Project's in-depth analysis of what creates health in a community, the Pasadena index includes a wide range of sectors very similar to those in Jacksonville. An interesting indicator used in the ''environment'' category is the state of Pasadena's ''urban forest'' - how many trees are on streets and in parks. Regarding the connection between health and the environment, a 1992 report says: ''A Healthy City means ... clean air, pure water, urban forests, and residents committed to recycling. An unpolluted environment supports human development and fosters good health.''
A third variety of local-indicators project is represented by Seattle's Sustainable City Project. In November 1990, concerned Seattle citizens began developing a new kind of measurement, a set of ''sustainability indicators.'' Based on their definition of sustainability as ''long-term cultural, economic, and environmental health and vitality,'' the group has come up with a preliminary list of 20 indicators of sustainability for the Seattle area. The list includes many of the same categories used by other cities, but there are also some highly unusual ones, such as ''employment concentration'' (the percentage of the King County labor force employed by the top 10 employers), amount of work required to meet basic needs (number of hours of work at the average local wage), number of children living in poverty, the housing-affordability ratio (median income compared with housing prices), and health-care expenditures per capita.
In a number of these cases - Jacksonville, Pasadena, and Oregon in particular - measurement of local quality of life has already stimulated new methods of making city or state government more responsive and accountable. It has fueled the creation of strategic plans based on community goal-setting initiatives and fostered a change to performance-based budgeting, which is based on measuring outcomes of agency work rather than dollar inputs.
The move toward measuring quality of life locally is a fast-growing trend nationally. The Jacksonville project receives so many requests for information that the Community Council has developed a guide for doing such a project. The National Civic League reports at least 127 US localities known to be involved in ''Healthy Communities'' work. And the ''sustainable community'' wave is also moving through the US (and the global community) on its own, fed by citizen concern about the destruction of our ecosystem. Among these ''sustainable city'' projects, Cambridge, Mass., Chicago, and Minneapolis are also relatively well known. An ambitious effort at regional indicators, the Northwest Environment Watch in Seattle, takes as its study area 650,000 square miles of the US and Canada.
Experts such as Hazel Henderson take the view that not only vast regions, but our whole country should be measuring its welfare by new quality-of-life measures instead of the dangerously misleading gross domestic product figure currently used as the barometer of the nation's economic and social health. In the short-term, however, connecting the quality-of-life-indicator trend with the new block-grant initiatives seems just good old American common sense and a way to assess whether taxpayers are getting their money's worth.