I just got back from an overnight canoeing trip on the Miramichi with a couple of ED buddies. By my count, we spent about 13 hours straight talking about economic development. I felt like Russian dissidents circa the 1970s plotting the downfall of communism (although our issues in NB are not nearly as grandiose).
But I am not going to talk about that discussion. I want to talk this evening about communications in government. I know it’s an old theme on this blog but I want to revisit it in light of several conversations I have had lately.
First, I think we need to completely rethink how government ‘communicates’ with its public. Right now the only communications is pried out of government officials by the media or served up via highly sanitized and vetted press communiques. In fact, sometimes I think the role of the communications people in government is to restrict the information that the public sees on its activities.
And that is crazy. The government of NB spends $6 billion tax dollars each year and you would be hard pressed to find a handful of people that actually know what the government does.
I would flip it on its ear. I would encourage the Premier to write a blog – a heartfelt communication with the public. Not the crap we hear now. An honest personal assessment from the guy about the challenges and struggles of trying to change things in this province. I would have BNB employees writing “dispatches from the road” where they tell the public about recent trips to Prague and Dallas and some of the exciting things they are working on. Not private information or confidential company names but the things they are doing on a daily basis to try and make things better for all New Brunswickers.
And I would apply that to every department and agency of government. I would start an ongoing and personal dialogue with the people.
Now some are going to say that it would be a waste of time and money. That only a few people would ever read the stuff and it would take valuable time away from ‘real’ work. I say that is bullcrap. Ask the average New Brunswicker. They will tell you that the government almost nothing and has no real impact on their daily lives. Why? Because they haven’t a clue what is being done.
And even if only a few folks tune in. So what? I have always thought that we need a ground swell of support from the people for a real economic development agenda. One that causes pain in certain areas. One that will require risk and one that will require far more focus from across government and its agencies. That is why you need this interactivity.
Cripes. Between Communications New Brunswick and the dozens if not a hundred or more communications types in each and every department of government. What is the point of their millions of dollars spent?
I am talking about the Fraser Institute quoted in the T&T today led by the big bold black headline “Lower taxes create jobs”. Glad that Al Hogan is joining the discussion. Wish the piece was a little more nuanced.
Our GDP per worker is second worst among the 60 states/provinces. This is Fraser’s measurement of productivity. This is one measure of productivity but certainly not a comprehensive understanding of productivity. For example, public services tend to have very low GDP per worker ratios and NB has among the highest percentages of public workers in the workforce. Now, I am not a defender of a swelled civil service but I am just saying that you can’t assume that public sector workers are not productive because they don’t have a high GDP per worker ratio. We don’t measure the success of public service on its GDP.
And as for the boilerplate about cutting taxes, Fraser economists get paid a commission for every time they can work the term “cut taxes” into their vocabulary. As I (and many others) have pointed out, taxes are only one factor in determining business investment and if tax cuts erode further education quality, infrastructure, economic development activities, etc. they would likely lead to worse business investment outcomes.
But I am beginning to appreciate the value of mantra. Give Fraser and AIMS their due – they do stay on message – decades of staying on message.
We all know where Fraser is coming from but they do put together some interesting comparative data. This is their latest review of North American labour markets.
I was actually impressed with New Brunswick’s ranking of 43rd out of 60 states and provinces on the broad labour market index. However, some of the sub indices give me serious cause for concern:
NB rans 56th out of 60 provinces/states for the percentage of the workforce employed by the provincial/local public sector. 53rd for unionization and 56th for flexibility of labour relations laws. Why does a poor province like New Brunswick have the most inflexible labour relations laws?
We have the third highest unemployment rate in North America.
We rank 7th for “average duration of unemployment” (which incidentially helps bring NB up to the 43rd ranking overally). Fraser lists this as a good thing because people are unemployed for smaller durations. However, read their own analysis. They say that seasonal employment is driving these good rankings. How many of you out there believe that New Brunswick’s very high ratio of seasonal jobs is a good thing?
We are second last in North America for “Average GDP per worker”. Alabama’s is $99,614. New Brunswick’s is $72,365 (both in Canadian dollars). The average GDP per worker in NB is 21% lower than in Alabama.
I still have Lizzy Weir’s snappy intonation from the mid 1990s in my head. “If we don’t stop them, this Liberal government will turn New Brunswick into Alabama North”.
I am not a huge fan of this metric but it does hold some interest. Here is the lead in Macleans:
If you were to imagine Canada’s smartest city — a place filled with fascinating people, cultural delights and endless learning opportunities — what would it be like?
It is Macleans-level over the top to claim that a ranking on this little test will make your town filled with fascinating people, cultural delgihts and endless learning opportunities. In fact, in my quick scroll of some of the higher ranking places, many of the ones I have visited are actually quite boring and shallow (comparatively). Then again, I like my cities scrappy, a bit on the gritty side and just humming with stuff going on.
I will say this. Many places in Alberta place very high on this list and I believe it must have something to do with the billions more poured into education, broadband telecom, etc. The oil money is having an impact.
You know I write reports for a living. Dozens of them per year ranging from 5 page briefing notes to 100 page reports that only a handful of folks ever read.
One of the central themes I have learned over the years when it comes to report writing is the importance of comparison. Specifically comparing what you are proposing to what is being done in other companies or jurisdictions.
For example, take the Erdle Report entitled “Management Alternatives for New Brunswick’s Public Forest” that was released today. 108 pages of very technical analysis – detailed forecasts, multiple scenarios all designed to help the government decide how best to manage the public forest into the future. I didn’t read the whole thing yet but early media reports suggests Erdle is putting more focus on conservation.
But my point is simple. 108 pages. Not one reference to how other similar jursidictions are doing it. Now, I realize that the Yakov Smirnoff (what was that report guy’s name?) report back in 2002 made recommendations that modelled some of the Scandanavian countries – but it was perceived that Jaakko Pöyry (I was quite far off with Yakov Smirnoff wasn’t I?) was too much ‘industry’ focused his well written comparative analysis was discarded.
Now maybe the great UNB experts will say that wasn’t in the terms of reference. Maybe so. I don’t know. But as someone who looks at the intersection of public policy and economic development on a daily basis, I can tell you that this report doesn’t set anything in the broader context. I would far rather have another comparative look – in similar environments – and then have the context. Policy makers may still go another route – opting for something non-conventional but at least they would have understood how things are done elsewhere.
This is heady stuff. Thousands of jobs are on the line. Just not David Coon’s.
Ooops. Did I say that out loud?
I sat a meeting no less than 15 years ago where the topic was “evolving the call centre industry”. We were in a room talking about how New Brunswick could leverage its success at attracting call centres to attract higher end back offices, technology services and other service functions that were no longer tied to the head office.
Fast forward to 2008 and we haven’t had much success at that. Since the mid 1990s we have attracted dozens of call centres but not much else.
My column today in the TJ makes the case that we should make more of an effort.
I don’t know if political ‘machines’ are as well oiled as some people like to think. For example, some folks have told me that ‘top’ potential candidates will stay out of a leadership race if they don’t think the party has a chance to win. Then you get a so-called caretaker leader to shepherd the party through a losing election, resign and then allow those top candidates to come forward.
However, I have talked with several involved Tories in New Brunswick who say they have a real chance at winning the provincial election 2010. If this is the case then why have only three – essentially unilingual anglos stepped up as potential leaders? The convention is in two months so it would seem unlikely that many more will be getting in.
Thanks to Jacques Poitras’ new blog on the upcoming Tory leadership, I was prompted to visit all three hopeful websites.
We are two months from the convention and one of the three doesn’t even have a website yet (just a picture of himself with a coming soon message) and the other two don’t have anything on their websites about policy positions.
There doesn’t seem to be much there. Maybe the machine has determined the Tories can’t win after all.
15 years ago, there was very little ‘seek and find’ activity undertaken by local economic development agencies. Those were the heady days of Frank McKenna.
Then slowly, in response to perceived underperformance from provincial economic development efforts, local ED agencies started to undertake seek and find and in fact a national program was put in place called CISP to provide money to support these efforts.
Now I see that more local agencies are backing away from seek and find. On one hand this makes perfect sense. There is a team (10 or so?) in Fredericton doing this with travel budgets, etc. It is enormously hard for a small local agency to do seek and find of new business. However, I do know a few that have done it quite well – mainly because they actually hired a real sales guy/gal to lead the effort.
But what is missing from this article is the lack of discussion around building the local value proposition for economic development. That should be the sweet spot for local economic developers. Finding the gaps and then working with the players to fill them in.
Every community – large or small – has the potential to witness economic development.
Just a quick follow up to my last post because I can already hear the response of some: “Economic developers shouldn’t be in the business of real estate development competing with the private sector”. How many times have I heard this – or a variant of it. “We aren’t in the business of workforce development.” “It’s not our job to fix the problem at the airport.” “That’s not our responsibility”.
Well, what is the responsibility of an economic developer? To publish a brochure, attend a few golf tournaments, counsel a few small businesses and then complain that economic development is not happening in the community because of someone else?
Economic developers need to be in the business of economic development. What are the barriers to economic development in this community and how do we get beyond them. If going into the local hospital and performing brain surgery will lead to successful economic development, I say do it (although my professional advice would be to go and recruit a qualified brain surgeon).
At some point, economic development became about putting in time. Punching the clock. Attending the trade show. Writing the annual report. Hosting the golf tourny.
The best economic development organizations are the ones that can perceive what is holding up economic development and then catalyzing solutions. Obviously, the idea is to leverage existing community assets as much as you can but if they are not getting it done -get in there and do it.
Interesting article in the G&M today about an historic building in Summerside, PEI that was redeveloped into a softwar
One of Summerside’s oldest structures, the former Holman’s department store, has been gutted and is being retrofitted to serve as a high-tech centre, aiming for businesses such as Carestream that need the wiring, open office concepts and improved heating and ventilation. The 100,000-square-foot building comprises two brick structures built for merchant R.T. Holman.
Summerside Regional Development bought the building in 2007 and began a three-year project to create a home for high-tech and IT tenants in particular. The budget for the purchase and renovation is $7.2-million. ACOA has put a million into the project.
I’m all for this type of project. High tech companies need office space and 95% of them don’t want to own it – they want to lease. Yet, in many cases, the ‘market’ hasn’t stepped up to develop the office space needed to support the attraction of industry. So why not do this type of deal? It is likely the SRD will charge a reasonable rent for the facility but even if they don’t – so what? If they attract 500-600 high tech workers paying upwards of $1-2 million or more in local property tax and $3-5 million per year in provincial income tax – isn’t the ROI there?
Back when there were old, heritage buildings in Moncton a developer picked them up for virtually nothing (Marvins, Eatons, etc.) – in many cases from the province for a buck. The developer redeveloped them and then landed the call centres brought in by the province.
Fast forward to today. If a community isn’t ‘lucky’ enough to have a bunch of old buildings laying around, what can be done?
My point is that buildings are needed infrastructure too.