Measuring success in economic development
I write a lot. Three to four columns a week. At least that many blogs and in my day job I am always writing.
As a result people have a lot of opportunity to read my stuff and read into my stuff exactly what they want to see/hear.
So, I get an email this morning after my TJ column asking why I don’t like BNB.
There is nothing in there about BNB with the exception of the set up mentioning the bad loans and the calls for the elimination of ‘economic development agencies’.
My concerns around focus, accountability and measurement are targeted at the system not just BNB.
In reality, I don’t know much about BNB. I have never done any consulting work for the department. I used to know 80% of the folks there 10 years ago but now I wouldn’t even know more than a handful.
I want the conversation to be about how we do economic development in the province and that is a whole bevy of agencies and departments (itself a concern).
The other point in the email was that it would be impossible to show what I am calling a return on taxpayer investment for BNB efforts. Too much of what they do, I was told, cannot be measured in a quantifiable way.
I have heard this argument a thousand times. If there is no tax-based reason for economic development (i.e. $1 in = $2 out over time), they how do we measure success? Jobs created? No, I am told, because much of the work is business counselling and support that doesn’t end up with new jobs or taxes.
Then why do it?
I fear we get back to the same old debate I have been fighting for 20 years. Economic development is about keeping things from getting worse. We inject a couple of hundred million in taxpayer dollars into the economy through direct economic development agency spending and loans/grants to companies and then we say without it, companies would have went under or had to lay off workers.
I don’t buy this vision of economic development. I think that reinforces the view of those calling for the elimination of economic development efforts because they would say even if companies went under or lost jobs, the economic loss to the province would be less than the cost of propping up that activity.
My vision for economic development involves smart people representing industry, government and other stakeholders collaborating to grow export-based sectors of the economy creating incremental economic activity, employment and taxes.
Under my model, if you say you have aerospace and defence as a ‘growth sector’, and you pour tens of millions into ‘growing’ the sector over a decade, you should see growth. Maybe that doesn’t seem practical to some but it seems eminently logical to me.