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About salmons and whooping cranes

A salmon jumping upstream over a small ramp in a fast flowing river

Somewhere along my biologist training or my subsequent cross-disciplinary meanderings, I picked up that you can measure many things about a river that tell you whether it is healthy or not: water quality, vegetation, wildlife, microfauna and flora, etc. All these indicators together paint a picture of its ecology, but one above all tells you that everything else is ok: whether the salmon come back to spawn. It’s like a meta-indicator: if the salmon are there, the other measurements will be ok.

(This is in my head and I have no sources so I hope it’s true and not a fabrication of my brain. It sounds likely enough for the purposes of this thought thread but I would like to know for sure. If you are able to corroborate, I would be grateful.)

So thinking about evaluation these days… I am working on mapping what we know of the public service system, to identify where we might hope to make change happen and determine what sort of change would be desired, and finally what indicators would tell us whether the expected change has occurred or not. We can measure many things that will paint a picture but I’m also alert to finding a salmon or three: a small number of meta-indicators that will give me an at-a-glance sense of how things are going.

In seemingly unrelated reading (ahabut everything is connected, is it not?),

My buddy Leah Lockhart reposted this long form piece about a writer who joins a scientific expedition studying Whooping Cranes as part of the research for a novel, woven through with reflections on her life and relationships. (It’s a beautiful piece on many levels. The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser is here on the Paris Review.)

She writes:

Here is what I learned once I began studying whooping cranes: only a small part of studying them has anything to do with the birds. Instead we counted berries. Counted crabs. Measured water salinity. Stood in the mud. Measured the speed of the wind.

It turns out, if you want to save a species, you don’t spend your time staring at the bird you want to save. You look at the things it relies on to live instead. You ask if there is enough to eat and drink. You ask if there is a safe place to sleep. Is there enough here to survive?

If we want to build innovation and culture change into our public services, we need to also look at the things that they rely on. Relationships. Communication. Values. Trust. (Other things which I shall keep pondering.) What can we notice that tells us if an organisational ecosystem is healthy?

A salmon jumping upstream over a small ramp in a fast flowing river

Photo by Drew Farwell on Unsplash

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