Private sector-led economic development
A few of us have been chatting about the limited mention of the role of the private sector in the government’s new economic development plan. There seems to be a lot more alignment and focus on government efforts but the only reference to the private sector involves something called ‘advisory forums’. This might just be an oversight as the plan was meant to lay out the case for action and the efforts of government but I think we need more private sector involvement not less in the coming years.
What’s that look like? I have written about this in the past in numerous columns and blogs but essentially my proposed model would be a hybrid where regional economic development strategies would be led by private and public sector leaders around the province and sector-specific growth opportunities would be championed by teams of private and public sector leaders.
For example, I would like to see industry leaders stepping up to identify sector growth opportunities and working with public sector partners to assess potential and map a plan for growth. This was the thinking behind Future NB, if you will recall and I don’t limit this to the standard basket of industries (ICT, aerospace, etc.) that we have been talking about for 20 years.
I’d like to see a few leaders in the legal services industry get together and assess the potential of New Brunswick becoming a national back office for legal services. I’d like to see leaders in the health care space get together to determine if there are niche segments of the industry where New Brunswick could provide services across North America. Right now radiologists in Ontario are assessing test results for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’d like to see our language translation sector get together to determine if there are opportunities to attract more of that high value, good wage sector to New Brunswick.
There are about 900 six-digit NAICS industries in Canada from soybean farming (NAICS 111111) to International and Other Extra-Territorial Public Administration (NAICS 919110). I wouldn’t rest until every single industry group was assessed for potential opportunities.
I tell you this because some people think ‘private sector involvement’ in economic development has been superficial at best in recent years and that it is time for government to step up and take control. They see the private sector as only wanting handouts form government. They cite the resistance of many NB businesses to efforts meant to attract investment to the province as proof that local firms are only focused on ‘looking out for themselves’ and not on growing the economy.
I think this is too cynical (although there are grains of truth). In my view, effective economic development – forgive the cliche – rises all boats. Attracting Google to New Brunswick would be good for the SMEs in ICT. Attracting a few larger multinational life sciences research firms would bolster the potential of entrepreneurs in that sector.
I admit my model requires a greater commitment from the private sector – a commitment that may not be there in all sectors and regions of New Brunswick.
In the end, if firms are going to put valuable staff time and financial resources into ‘economic development’ it can’t be for philanthropy. They have to see what is in it for them and that is okay with me. NBTel spent a pile of money and assigned senior people to the efforts to attract customer contact centres and back offices back in the 1990s but they reaped a substantial reward from that investment. I am not saying all opportunities will have such a well-defined case for private sector involvement but we need to frame the conversation in terms of mutual benefit.
Let’s pencil the private sector back into the economic development plans for New Brunswick.