A Better Way For Communities To Do Strategic Planning

The purpose of government at all levels in the United States is to help citizens achieve their American Dream.

The American Dream is the promise of our Nation.  Pursuit of the American Dream has been the inspiration for millions of immigrants who believe through hard work you can enjoy both prosperity and social mobility.

They leave their country of birth to forge a new path in a nation that declares “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But, the American Dream is not uniformly achievable across the nation.  Investment choices made by local elected officials in the areas of asset creation, infrastructure investment and public policy/program creation have a material impact on resident’s ability to achieve their American Dream.  And more often than not these decisions are made without careful consideration of their resultant impact on enabling achievement of the Dream.

There are two driving reasons this is so.  Historically …

  • The American Dream has been poorly understood.
  • There has been no practical way to measure achievement of the American Dream on either a national or local basis.

What has changed?

Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio has created a monthly quantitative index that measures how we, as a nation, are doing in terms of achieving our American Dream.  The American Dream Composite Index (ADCI) is a unique, robust measure of American sentiment and captures the essence of Americans aspirations.  It is important to note the ADCI is the only statistically validated measure of the American Dream.

The ADCI quantifies the American Dream in its entirety.  It gauges the extent to which people living in the United States are achieving their American Dream.

The ADCI does not pre-determine the definition of the American Dream.  The ADCI research questionnaire includes 139 statistically derived statements pertaining to various aspects of the American Dream.  Based on factor analysis, responses to these statements are reported as 35 dimensions and subsequently 5 ADCI sub-indexes.

  1. Economic Sub-Index™ measures one’s satisfaction, freedom and progress with respect to their finances, job, home ownership and health care.
  2. Well-Being Sub-Index™ measures the extent of one’s contentment, health and prosperity in life.
  3. Societal Sub-Index™ measures the extent to which the government, businesses and people are fair and trustworthy.
  4. Diversity Sub-Index™ measures the attitudes toward the assimilation of differences in one’s community.
  5. Environment Sub-Index™ measures the extent of pollution in the air, food, water and land that one encounters on a regular basis.

These data provide a quantitative perceptual measure on the degree to which residents of a specific state or community feel they are achieving their American Dream.

For the purposes of community strategic planning, these data can be used to identify strengths and opportunities compared to national and competitive location performance using gap analysis.  And, these data can be used to identify the best in class locations for the purpose of identifying strategies with local reapplication potential through classic benchmarking. 

Both of these data analysis processes are fairly straightforward and relatively easy to teach economic development organizations to use effectively.  The exciting development is they are now possible thanks to Xavier University’s research.

Example Case Study

This case study illustrates how the ADCI data could be used.  In this case, the ADCI scores are calculated based on the three year period of calendar 2015 through 2017.  Residents of the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC MSA feel they are achieving their American Dream at a statistically significantly greater degree than national average.  In contrast, residents of the Duluth, MN-WI MSA feel they are achieving their American Dream at a statistically significantly less degree than national average.  If you are the Executive Director of the Duluth Economic Development Authority, what insight can you get from the ADCI data to help create a more effective strategic development plan?

Gap Analysis

Comparing Duluth to national average, the MSA is statistically significantly lower on four of the five sub-indexes (economic, well being, societal, and diversity).  Duluth is statistically significantly higher than national average on the sub-index of environment.

Looking at the Economic sub-index, Generational Progress and Access to Education represents big performance gaps. 

Social Status and Fruits of My Labor are areas in the Well-Being sub-index Duluth residents feel materially less good about than national average.

Under the Societal sub-index, Trust in Government and Trust in Business are huge performance gaps.

While statistically significantly below national average, within the sub-index of Diversity there isn’t a dramatic performance gap versus national average. 

The gap analysis versus national average provides a number of areas for Duluth MSA leaders to begin thinking about improving.  A similar gap analysis can be looked at by comparing Duluth MSA resident scores versus other MSAs considered to be competitive for talent and capital investment.


In contrast, residents of the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC MSA feel better than national average across the four sub-indexes Duluth has negative gaps.  This suggests a deeper penetration into what the elected officials and economic development professionals have done to better enable residents of the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord MSA to achieve those aspects of their American Dream.  The exploration focus would be to identify practical actions that could be considered for reapplication in Duluth.  Such actions would then be input to the Duluth strategic development plan and appropriately resourced for success.  Benchmarking would typically done by visiting officials in the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC MSA and talking about the drivers of their success, and/or hiring a consultant to provide a report identifying the drivers and their potential for reapplication. 

Success Measurement

Once local leadership decides on the most appropriate course of action and moves to the strategy deployment phase, results can be measured by changes in the resident perceptual scores.  The timeframe to observe changes will vary depending on how long it takes to actually implement the strategy, but the impact can be measured based on both improvement in Duluth resident perception of how well they are achieving in the specific gap areas and on relative performance improvement versus national average (or versus a specific competitive set of MSAs).  Leaders will have an absolute and relative perspective on whether Duluth is actually gaining ground or falling behind. 


This case, while using real data, is over simplified for illustrative purposes.  Perhaps the greatest value in this process is forcing elected officials and economic development professionals to grapple with the question of why residents feel the way they do.  This discussion will raise insights into potential actions, but importantly focuses leadership on the objective of better enabling residents to achieve their American Dream.

This is a fundamentally different discussion than one focused on how to increase the year over year job growth in a community.  To use private sector terms, it shifts the conversation focus from sales to product development.  It becomes all about how to make the community work better for both residents and businesses.

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