I have been following the big society idea in the U.K. with some interest – I heard another podcast last night as I was cooking/doing the dishes and waiting for my daughter at piano lessons.
It seems to me the idea of empowering local communities to make decisions and take greater control of their destiny makes a lot of sense but at the same time scale matters.
Take the example of schools. I have been involved a little with the Moncton High School situation and I was blown away when I heard the province doesn’t even consult with the city about where to put new schools – not even as a courtesy. This even though the city is obliged to provide specific services around the school such as sidewalks. So a city may have a municipal plan and specifically state it wants certain types of services in certain areas (such as neighbourhood schools) which the province ignores.
There are a number of decisions that provinces make that are like this. I think I mentioned before that I talked with a city manager one time who said he had not met the Minister of local government once in over two years. And this was one of the largest cities in the province. That’s crazy – these guys should be on speed dial.
The problem is that old paternalism – anyone who has worked at various levels of government knows about this – the feds – the province – local government in that order. The province knows best.
My main point today was around the big society and economic development. I have been thinking more and more lately that we need to better engage the business community directly in economic development. It seems to me that businesses – particularly those that have built export markets, that have partnered with global companies, that have filed for patents, that have attracted investment, that have shown an ability to be efficient with resources – have some value to add to the process of economic development.
I have said it before – and it’s not secret – that I am not sure that governments are the best conduit for economic development. Government has a vested interested in economic development. Government is a key stakeholder in economic development – but I am just not sure it is particularly good at the mechanics of it.
Most government is about spending money. We see a need in society and we build a program to fill it and we fund it with taxpayer dollars. If you go up and down the halls of the Centennial Building in Fredericton you will find well intentioned bureaucrats developing and analyzing how government money is spent – in health care, education, transportation, etc.
Economic development is (or should be) about making money. Why else spend taxpayer dollars? For every dollar we invest in economic development we should be getting $3-4 back in new tax revenue or else why bother?
Anyway, I’d like to find ways to get business more directly involved but I am still a little reluctant because personal self interest is a powerful force. For example, many New Brunswick businesses are downright hostile to the idea of attracting firms here – let’s say Google, Michelin, Boeing – because they worry about losing workers – or having to pay more for workers – or, one of my favourites, that there is only a small ‘pool of taxpayer money for economic development’ and it should be given to local firms.
In other words, many businesses are very interested in economic development as long as it helps them and not particularly interested in economic development in a broader sense. The truth is that a lot of NB firms have benefited from a weak economy. They have been able to pay lower wages, had zero turnover and had a government eager to give out money. If there was a strong economy in New Brunswick, wages would go up, there would be more competition for workers and the government would feel less compelled to dole out taxpayer funds.
Having said all that, however; I continue to meet business leaders that are ready to get in the game – ready to help NB grow its economy and not locked into parochial thinking.
I think we should serious look at building industry groups/associations related to the sectors of the economy with good growth prospects and help them build the value proposition and the strategy for growing the sector. Government would be directly involved with these groups and there would still be a major role for government – out selling the province, helping to fill gaps, etc. but the leadership would come from the sectors themselves.
The idea needs more meat on the bones but I think we need to start looking at it. Instead of whining, let’s get these folks in the game.