Economic development agencies: At least a few shades of grey

One of the meta-trends I think has been rising in force over the past decade has been the push to ram stuff into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ categories – the rush to eliminate grey.  I see this with natural resources development and other economic development topics but also with larger policy questions.  And this trend is certainly not restricted to New Brunswick.  It is pervasive.

Let me be clear.  Protagonists and antagonists have always tried to simplify their arguments into simple binary choices but in general everybody else could see that there were various shades of grey. Now, because we are crumbling under the weight of information coming at us from all sides, we are ever more likely to rush to a quick judgement on an issue and them move on.

On this blog for a decade now we have debated and discussed the role of regional economic development agencies.  Most people  that think about these things agree there is ‘a’ role – but they rightly disagree on what that role is and what is the role of government versus the private sector, etc.

Then someone sends me an email from Tim Bousquet, Editor of the Halifax Examiner (it looks like this is Mr. Bousquet’s blog).  Mr. Bousquet says:

This morning the province released a damning 700-page audit of the Cumberland Regional Development Authority, and says it will call in the RCMP to investigate. I’ve reviewed the audit, and detail some of specifics, but I say there’s a larger point to be made: Because of the nature of the enterprise, pretty much all economic development agencies are going to be corrupt.

I’ve gone through this report – quickly – and the one in Yarmouth – and dozens of other reports over the past 20 years related to the operations and governance of regional development agencies and certainly there are examples of bad governance and outright fraud and theft – just like every other sector of the economy – public or private.

It is intellectually lazy to read the CREDA report and say something generic like “because of the nature of the enterprise, pretty much all economic development agencies are going to be corrupt”.

That is the equivalent of saying “because a few finance firms on Wall Street were corrupt, all banks are corrupt” or because certain newspaper editors are corrupt, all newspaper editors are corrupt.

The reality is that the problems with regional economic development agencies over the past 20 years have been more to do with functions and outcomes than fraud or corruption and all across the region thoughtful, local community leaders are trying to build more accountable and relevant local economic development efforts.   This kind of vitriol with not even the slightest attempt to make the argument beyond “because of the nature….” is not helpful at all.

I don’t know who Mr. Bousquet is but if he wants to be credible he should focus on facts and build a rigorous argument rather than taking one case like CREDA and intoning that every economic development effort is ‘corrupt’.  That’s just plain lazy.

Now, as for the CREDA report itself (they use the acronym CRDA), the executive summary is well worth the read.  It provides a laundry list of things a good board will do and how to have effective internal controls over an organization such as this.

I would be surprised if anyone other than Mr. Bousquet will read this and conclude that all economic development agencies are corrupt.  But they will/should read this and see a very clear example of how not to govern such an organization.