The Wellbeing Project: Measuring and Managing What Really Matters

Santa Monica, United States

Santa Monica, California is tapping the power of data to evaluate wellbeing. The City of Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project has created a framework to evaluate community wellbeing, developed a mechanism to measure it and is using this data to target its policies and programs to help residents thrive.

Governments around the world are beginning to recognize that economic growth alone does not ensure a community’s success. True measures of progress take into account the wellbeing of people. We must also ask ourselves questions like: Do they feel empowered to make change? Are they happy, healthy, and connected to the community? Are they able to access opportunities for lifelong learning? Without this information, governments have no way to understand the cumulative impact of their work and are challenged to manage for better results.

Santa Monica is doing something never before done by a city in the United States. It has defined six dimensions that contribute to wellbeing –outlook, place, health, economic opportunity, learning and community– and is comprehensively measuring how its citizens and communities fare on these indicators. From there, the City is aligning resources, programs and policies to drive improvements.

The Wellbeing Project was created to be an open source to other communities, with the hope of creating a network of cities that learn from each other.

Background and objectives

The City of Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project is using data to help people of all ages thrive. At the Project’s core is the Wellbeing Index, a new tool developed to provide a comprehensive understanding of the strengths and challenges faced by community members in the following areas:

The City will use the findings from the Wellbeing Index to guide decision making, policy setting, and resource allocation. The Project also seeks to heighten awareness of community wellbeing, empower citizens to work together, and cultivate cross-sector partnerships.

The Wellbeing Project was inspired by Santa Monica’s Cradle to Career Initiative. Following the principles of collective impact, the initiative brings public institutions, nonprofit service providers, and concerned community members together to find ways to help children 0 - 24, and their families, thrive. The group uses data related to key areas of youth wellbeing to set priorities and establish programs that respond to areas of need.


Santa Monica’s Wellbeing Project may be summed up in 3 words: Define. Measure. Act.

Financing and resources

Development and implementation of the Wellbeing Project was made possible by a $1M award from Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, as well as ongoing financial and in-kind support from the City of Santa Monica. Project partners involved include:

Results and impacts

The first Wellbeing Index measurement provided a wellbeing baseline for the City. Santa Monica will utilize this information to improve policies, focus resources, and catalyze partnerships to strengthen residents’ quality of life. The findings revealed citywide trends, like high levels of wellbeing for seniors and low levels of social connection across all ages, and also provided insights on where targeted actions could improve wellbeing. By looking at factors contributing to high levels of wellbeing among seniors, City staff and its community partners are finding insights that will help address areas of need among other segments of the population.

The Index also revealed findings by geographic area which led to targeted action. For example, the City found that one neighborhood had higher rates of unemployment and economic worries and a lower median income than Santa Monica as a whole. This neighborhood also had the lowest level of fruit and vegetable consumption. In response, the City partnered with Los Angeles County to increase enrollment in public-benefit programs that help low-income residents meet their nutritional needs, and enrolled in a state program that doubles the value of public benefits at the Farmer’s Market.

The Project also yielded important results on an operational level. For example, the Project revealed functional inefficiencies in the City’s data culture within the City organization. This has led to the restructuring of the City’s IT Department and the hiring of its first Chief Data Officer. Furthermore, the community wellbeing framework is now seen as the ‘operating system’ for the City. Community-wide strategic goals are being aligned with the six dimensions of the Index and new performance metrics will be informed by community wellbeing findings. In addition, City Departments must now include strategies to improve wellbeing in their annual workplans and budgets.

The Wellbeing Project has successfully heightened awareness of human thriving throughout the community. Organizations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors have adopted the concept of community wellbeing and the wellbeing framework to add deeper meaning to their respective missions. This has increased the community’s visibility on the national and international levels and has opened the door to new funding sources for social impact projects.

Barriers and challenges

Introducing the concept of ‘wellbeing’ in the City organization and in the community at large proved to be a challenge. While wellbeing research, and general use of the word itself, is common abroad, the US has been slow to catch up. Instead, the US tends to focus on the end results of positive wellbeing like happiness, health, resilience, and sustainability. Getting people inside and outside the City organization to understand wellbeing on a tangible level and how it relates to them personally and professionally has required continual engagement and reinforcement.

Another challenge came in trying to implement a big data project within a relatively small municipal governmental organization. While big data projects can be found in larger cities with more staff, few cities the size of Santa Monica are technologically and operationally equipped to integrate big data into their day-to-day administration. The Project revealed inconsistent levels of sophistication within the organization’s data culture. Data was not readily integrated across departments and management software systems were outdated. This is a key challenge likely common among local governments similar in size and scope to Santa Monica.

A third challenge was found in tapping the potential of data from non-traditional sources. For example, analysis of sentiments expressed through publicly available data from social media sources could provide a vast, continuous stream of insights. While private sector use of social data for marketing and other purposes is commonplace, use of social data for the public good is an emerging science that only a limited number of researchers have experience with. The Wellbeing Project incorporated some of this data in its initial Wellbeing Index to understand residents’ perspectives on issues and their overall outlook, but obtaining and using this data presented challenges in access, quality, and public perception. As a result, the social data featured in the Index is a small sampling of what is possible given the appropriate time, team, and resources. The project team continues to explore the feasible use of this type of data for future iterations of The Wellbeing Index.

Lessons learned and transferability

The Wellbeing Project was created as an open source project that would be shared and replicated by other communities interested in prioritizing community wellbeing. Once refined, the framework for the Wellbeing Index, the survey tool, and a playbook for its use will be available to other cities. The big picture goal is to cultivate a network of communities with a common metric that can learn from each other.

Ultimately, successful transferability will depend on the state of each communities’ data culture and systems, and their willingness to embrace the concept of community wellbeing. Here too, the Wellbeing Project can provide other cities with important lessons learned. For example, after an exhaustive department by department exploration of data collected by the City, the Project team conceded that, like most cities, Santa Monica’s approach to understanding, collecting, and utilizing data was behind the times. The Wellbeing Project became a catalyst prompting the City organization to catch up by strengthening its data culture and seeking out integrated management solutions.


The Wellbeing Project: Measuring and Managing What Really Matters, Santa Monica, Policy Transfer Platform, mars 2018

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