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USC alums, students use policy expertise to help Santa Monica measure its ‘well-being’

Project to gauge residents’ happiness helps city quantify its strengths and find where it can improve

Santa Monica has a reputation as an idyllic beach community, but a city is only as good as its people feel — and there is always room for improvement.

Graduates and students from the Master of Public Administration program at the USC Price School of Public Policy played a big role in producing Santa Monica’s innovative Wellbeing Project, which released initial findings in April.

The idea began as one of more than 300 submissions to the inaugural Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge, a nationwide competition for mayors to develop cutting-edge ideas to solve major challenges and improve city life.

As one of five winners, Santa Monica received a $1 million grant in 2013 to develop an index that scientifically measures and baselines Santa Monica’s well-being.

Brianna Freiheit MPA ’05 became the project manager that fall. She rounded out a four-person office with two more from the USC Price MPA program in Lisa Parson ’14 and then-student Brittany Mello, who graduated in May. Another MPA student, Madison Thesing, also contributed as a volunteer.

“Being able to understand data at a higher level, and to take that information, translate it and then put it in action is something the MPA program instilled in all of us,” Freiheit said.

This video was part of Santa Monica’s successful 2013 entry in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge:

How happy are you?

Measuring the happiness of residents is a recent trend around the world. But while most of those efforts have focused on one measure of data, Santa Monica took a unique approach by combining three: statistics from city and state databases, an online survey of 2,200 residents and social media content mined from Twitter and Foursquare.

“The real innovation lies in pulling those different pieces together to have what the numbers say and what the people say, and to see how they run in support or counter to each other, so we have this holistic view of how the community is doing,” Freiheit said.

Community well-being was assessed in five main areas: community, place, learning, health and economic opportunity. The results showed the city’s strengths and areas that need improvement.

According to the results, Santa Monica has strong voter turnouts (80 percent) and volunteer rates (38 percent) that well exceed the national average. But the data also showed that few people (29 percent) felt they could influence civic decisions, and many didn’t feel connected with other residents, with only 56 percent reporting they could count on their neighbors compared to 80 percent in a national survey.

Sustainable improvements

“This project is really about looking to make sustainable improvements for problems that come up in public policy all the time, but can’t be solved without community engagement,” Parson said.

Mello heard about the Wellbeing Project from Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould, with whom she was matched up through the Professional Mentor Program at the USC Price Office of Career Services. After serving as an intern for a different department in Santa Monica last summer, she contacted Freiheit about continuing on as an administrative intern for the Wellbeing Project. Her responsibilities included communications, website development and data analysis.

“This was such an easy project to get excited about,” Mello said. “It feels like something governments should be doing.”

In partnership with RAND, the project team will develop a transferability guide to help other cities learn about the index and how they can apply the five-dimension well-being framework to better measure their community.

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USC alums, students use policy expertise to help Santa Monica measure its ‘well-being’

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