Desperately seeking relevance

Folks, I can tell you I have never seen such disgruntlement about economic development among key stakeholders. In Nova Scotia, RDAs are being shut down, some are being de-funded by their municipal funders. In New Brunswick more and more cities are taking on their own efforts and bypassing their RDAs – the City of Bathurst is about to fund its own economic development resources.

I have said I don’t have a problem with cities having economic development staff – if they are large enough to afford it – but their efforts should be aligned with their regional development agency. If a major stakeholder/funder has a problem with an RDA, it’s better to work out the issues rather than create more and more duplication and overlap.

At its core, it seems to me that an increasing number of stakeholders in the Maritimes at least – are demanding to see value for their investment in economic development. A municipal Councillor in Nova Scotia told me not that long ago they had put over a million bucks in their RDA (I forget the time frame) and couldn’t see any value in that investment.

I have my views on this subject – running throughout this blog over the months and years – but in the end, there needs to be a visible and quantifiable return on taxpayer dollars invested. That’s the bottom line. I believe if we thought in those terms, we would be forced to get really focused.

Without clear, measurable objectives, it becomes real hard to show value and eventually, some municipal council will vote to defund economic development – or some government will pull the plug on a provincial department – or a federal government will slowly wind down an agency.

It is very hard to close something that people see providing real value.

Many of my colleagues in economic development will tell me that a lot of what they do is hard to quantify, – they are building the community’s brand reputation, or offering training to raise SME skills or helping to get a new piece of infrastructure built – or a dozen other related things. How do we know if those activities are worth while? How do we know if they are adding value? We must find a better way to link effort to real outcomes – investment, jobs, new taxes.

Otherwise, I see a big period of retrenchment in economic development. I talk to fairly well placed people these days who tell me we are spending way too much on economic development, we have way to many agencies and departments doing a lot of the same things. We are spending tens and hundreds of millions of dollars and can hardly show any return on that investment.

The Department of Transportation spends money and we get new or improved roads. The Department of Education spends money and we get education for children. Same for health care, justice – just about every activity of government. For economic development, we need to have an outcome – a tangible deliverable for the money invested. That is investment, jobs and new tax revenue.

2 thoughts on “Desperately seeking relevance

  1. The restlessness with economic development is rooted in both the lack of progress and the lack of leadership.

    During the McKenna days when New Brunswick (led by Moncton) was considered an econmomic development success story, there was little focus on return on investment. However, when there is little progress and a negative attitude towards economic development efforts, spending goes under the microscope.

    Since the McKenna days, there has been many new ED efforts in the forms of agencies, programs and initiatives. We should now realize that that the number of agencies and the size of the ED budget does not correlate to ED success; at least in the abscence of leadership.

    We need an economic development leader to restore a positive attitude and initiate positive momentum. Someone that generates excitement, garners some early wins and starts to turn a negative ED environment into a positive one. Someone that restores confidence and is able to sell our province as a place where business can be successful.

    Unless another agency is going to deliver this leadership, it is likely to be subjected to continued disgruntlement.

  2. I am ever happy to hear this and i couldn’t agree more. If we waste money anywhere in the system, it is in economic development. And I am not talking about funding business, I am talking about the ED infrastructure itself.

    “the City of Bathurst is about to fund its own economic development resources.”

    This is a perfect example. The City of Bathurst paid Hermel Vienneau’s as a consultant an amount in the six figures to produce a report recommending that a new “Economic Development Corporation” be developed, along with hiring a full time economic development officer. More costs to taxpayers.

    For those of you who don’t know Mr. Vienneau.

    “Hermel Vienneau, (retired) a Political Science graduate of l’Université de Moncton, has more than 30 years of experience in public sector management, the media and public relations. He was appointed Editor-in-Chief of L’Acadie Nouvelle in 1996 and later served as Deputy Minister in five provincial departments, including Chief of Staff to the Premier, and as Vice President (NB) with the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. He was also a member of the transition team in 1999.”

    I lifted that from a news release from the PC party announcing David Alward’s transition team last fall.

    I have a lot of respect fro Mr. Vienneau, and if the game plan is to access government funding, he was a brilliant choice. However, I am not sure if he was chosen for his knowledge of Economic Development as much as for his political connections and his access to government money.

    The report, which I have not read yet, was unveiled to the press here.

    If you are a cynic sitting on the outside, while people may very be well intentioned, this whole exercise is repeated every couple of years but results are hard to quantify, and it seems that a lot of people close to those in power do quite well. The same in the Liberal camp as well. i.e. Dana Clendenning, who worked as a “consultant-lobbyist” before becoming President of NB Liiquor. The beneficiaries just change.

    Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent annually just on infrastructure for the ED community. Offices, staff, websites, etc, etc, etc, and not counting the endless amount of funding initiatives that cross their desk

    The problem with ED is there is too much politics, and not enough real economic development.

Comments are closed.