Working with and in communities in the capacity of economic development for over two decades I’ve seen the subtle, incremental dismantling of good economic development practices. Incremental dismantling of a community is created and fueled by poor public administration, misguided policy, and ego driven behaviors.
Economic development in many communities is taking place at the expense of the citizens and community resources. In the past economic development was shaped by community development, which included planning, civic service, and a sense of the greater good. Over the last decade or more it appears in many places to be morphing into a win at all cost, any project is a good project, ‘shoot at anything that flies, claim anything that falls’ charade.
Does planning still take place in communities? Often planning does take place, implementation however does not always follow. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with someone who makes a very nice living creating community plans. He voiced frustration and discouragement of repeatedly seeing his work completed, only to go sit on a shelf in an office never to be actually implemented. So we know paying for a plan isn’t enough. Staying focused and implementing policy to support a plan is vital.
In the places that economic development has become a shell of the original intent you can see a direct correlation between the incremental dismantling, or even production of poor policy to feed the ‘beast’ as community resources are squandered. When economic development is more about headline and glory grabs community members will disengage and a downward cycle will develop.
True economic development is focused on community engagement, growth, planning, and development supported by well thought out and implemented policy. When good policy is in place the public administration path is clear and the influence of politics and/or ego diminishes. That is a formula that leads to community and resource growth, as well as civic pride.
Ten or so years ago workforce development was the job of professionals within the workforce development field. Now, workforce development has morphed into an effort that for some reason more people and professions than needed are trying to contribute to. The issue in many cases is “what” the non-workforce professionals are trying to contribute. Here is a list of three things being forced into the workforce development arena that are limited at best, and counterproductive at worst.
1) Government training and engagement funding programs. Paperwork, with a side of paperwork is curbing enthusiasm and the ability to access some potentially good State based programs. Money will be left on the table when the process consumes too much of human resource’s time. Why? Because human resource’s time equals money as well. Additionally, they are already busy people. Yes to training and engagement funds, but let’s simplify the hoops and time consumption currently attached to them.
2) Economic developers. I am a recovering economic developer so I say this with love. Economic development is a full time, and important job in communities. Impact and ability are diluted when workforce is added in as ‘economic development.’ Almost any economic developer who was around 10+ year ago went kicking and screaming to Workforce Investment Act meetings because it ‘wasn’t what an economic developer did.’ Let’s quit forcing people into conversations and dynamics that take away from what they were originally hired to do. The exception, creating a job or department within the economic development organization specifically to target partnerships with workforce professionals and support growing workforce efforts.
3) Incentivizing only job creation/retention growth. Incentivizing manufacturing growth only when it includes jobs created doesn’t make sense anymore, especially in rural areas. You only need to look at demographic trends to see the issue. If you only incentivize job creation, rural areas will eventually lose their manufacturers and they will at times move to secure both more people and the funds that come with them. Most of us know multiple companies who have jumped locations for economic development funding. Why? Because many States have built incentive programs creating a dynamic which makes it more profitable for them to do so. Would I move across the city or county line if incentivized to do so? Yes, yes I would if I was in the business of ending a year with a profit. Incentivizing automation eases the workforce challenges when it comes down to the bottom line of having enough people to fill positions. It contributes to stabilizing communities.
By continually adding everyone under the sun into the workforce discussion and/or program planning the only outcome you are on the path to is progress at a pace that is detrimental to manufacturing. More action, less meetings, more smart conversations, less of talking things into the ground and then burying them with endless paperwork.
I saw this post from a friend on social media this morning. It really rang my internal bell. He is currently at Everest, and if that isn’t inspiring enough the insight he shared (below) is critical. In a world that seems to be polarizing more and more, do what’s right, even if it means changing your mind, path, and/or commitment – that’s integrity.
Phil Gore’ Post:
The Memorial to Lost Climbers on Everest
Integrity is oneness with yourself. It means doing the right things in the moment, regardless of what others may think. It means that you are true to yourself.
It does not mean you always stay with your plans or keep your commitments. Integrity is keeping commitments when you should and breaking them when that is the right thing to do.
Most of the dead people remembered by this memorial, either they or someone they believed in were more stubbornly determined to keep their commitment to a summit than they were to doing the right thing in the moment.
This is not criticism or throwing stones. I have made this mistake. Once, it nearly cost two lives, and once it cost a life.
If you read this far, examine your understanding of the word integrity. Don’t buy an ill-conceived understanding of the term. Sometimes, it means keeping commitments, and sometimes it means breaking them. May God help each of us to live lives of integrity and do right things in the moments we have.
Economic development projects are not something you win. Economic development projects are something you first have a community plan for, along with collaboration and engagement with community partners, and then when an opportunity rises you have the economic intelligence to go after what fits your community culture and future, and pass on what does not.
Are you in your community sweet spot for smart growth and quality of life or are you just playing “Let’s Make A Deal”? Here are some indicators…
If your community has never passed on a “lead” your community is doing it wrong.
If you have no policy on what merits incentives and what does not, you are planning to fail.
If leadership is offering incentives as a “free gift with purchase” without running a formula on what the actual company need is, you are wasting taxpayer dollars.
Incentives are great, as is economic development; however, the propensity of human beings to win at all costs is what mucks things up. And there is your loop back to economic development needing economic intelligence. Freewheeling a deal is basically putting your taxpayers in second place and some strangers with either real, or possibly magic beans in the number one slot.
There are a lot of abandoned buildings out there that once housed projects communities fought for and incentivized, such as these three in Ohio. None of us are surprised there are no politicians and glory grabbers standing at this end of the deal.
Richman Brothers Factory Cleveland
I had a conversation which was focused on manufacturing and efficiency today. Efficiency, when speaking of technical production equates to measuring and comparing the useful work completed by the machine/process in relation to the total energy expended or heat taken in. The measure of efficiency within the technical dynamic is very quantifiable. But is efficiency in public spending so clearly quantifiable? Should it be?
Public spending of tax dollars is measured in a myriad of ways that can vary wildly from government entity to government entity. The question is why is it generally allowable for governments to develop a budget, without developing a correlating strategic plan with benchmarks? You see the opposite often in nonprofits. A nonprofit is more likely to have an annual or strategic plan without a fund development plan. In both cases, aren’t both needed to measure what success looks like within and outside of government walls? How can you hold folks accountable if there are no benchmarks to do so?
Some States do require, prior to State fund disbursement that the local entities provide an annual plan. Is this micro-managing? I’d say it is not, instead it is representative of a commitment to responsible distribution of public funds. How can governments, of any size, determine what is of value, what return on investment is, and/or what merits additional evaluation if budgets are not running along side measurable benchmarks and targeted outcomes? And how can government workers and/or public officials justify decisions without qualifying and quantifying use of public funds?
So often we hear people say government should be run more like business. Perhaps in the past, up until the 1960s or so, it might have been more relevant as the majority of business was still run with a community-corporate culture. Over the last several decades the majority of businesses have seen their culture change from community participant to profit driven entity; subsequently, running government like a business makes zero sense. Government isn’t about profit, it is about service.
As we continue to increase the magnitude of our whining about how politicians are out for themselves, and government doesn’t represent the people, we often fail to look locally at how we, ourselves, can address the continued trend in failed government operations and operatives, be they elected or administrative. How? By looking at the way we engage with it. More often than not you’ll find a lack of community engagement with local government, until a point of crisis, and/or personal impact. Such engagement takes place within an environment that has already been shaped and twice as hard to turn.
Good government can only exist in an environment that is transparent. And transparency is only impactful if the community is engaged, looking, and willing to address issues. Life can be exhausting, so addressing poor governance isn’t high on very many people’s list; subsequently, the political and governing dumpster fires continue to burn. Perhaps the first step is to get, and keep government administrators and elected officials in place that the community can trust. Kathleen Sebelius sums it up best, “The essence of good government is trust.”
Do you trust those running the government entities that impact you?