I cycle back to this every few months but I think it is a theme that we rarely consider. I had a few meetings recently that reinforced my suspicion that if you hooked up most of our politicians and economic developers up to a lie detector and asked the question “do you think New Brunswick will transform itself into a dynamic, growing place built on a sustainable economic foundation” – you would likely get a whole lot of nos or a lot of little white lies.
It troubles me that most of our leadership – at least in my view – don’t really have a lot of ambition for New Brunswick. You have to peel off the paper thin layer of public pronouncements but you will see that most of us don’t think New Brunswick can ‘compete’ with Ontario or Alabama or India when it comes to economic development.
So the question is fairly simple. If you have leadership at all levels that doesn’t really believe transformation is possible, how can you expect any serious effort to make it happen?
So we get on the treadmill of rhetoric and tired old economic development methods. I would argue we haven’t had an existential rethink of economic development in this province in at least the 20 years I have been around. There have been token efforts (name changes, for example) but we really haven’t moved off the basic model where BNB and ACOA offer various financing tools – primarily for SMEs and the Enterprise agencies triage potential clients into these programs.
We play around the margins of other economic develpoment activity but the bulk of effort would be matching SMEs to government financing.
I am convinced we need to fundamentally rethink this starting with a very basic vision for what we want to accomplish with the 700 people working in economic development and the close $300 million spent each year by various levels of government. If we had even that – most basic – thought process – we would be taking a good first step.
Instead all the various groups work feverishly on their activities – some adding value, others not much – with limited oversight and accountability. I would argue that the Enterprise Agencies have more oversight than BNB, for example. At least they have to defend themselves in public each year – in front of city/town council.
I don’t think we need more money or more people. I think we need to think about how the money is spent and the skillsets and job descriptions of the people spending the money. We need to get a whole lot more private sector involvement in economic development – not as oversight on doling out money to local businesses – but bringing their understanding of the business cycle, international marketing, product development, developing leadership, etc.
But most of all, we need to have people working towards a vision they believe in.
Think about the self-sufficiency agenda. In retrospect, how many people – Deputy Ministers, senior government leadership, politicians, business leaders, university presidents, etc. – really thought that was achievable?
How can you expect your leadership team to build strategies and tactics to move in the direction of fulfilling the vision if no one believes in the vision?
A government change is a good time to figure this out before people get set into the daily routines of doing the doing.