It’s very hard to type and pace around fuming at the same time.
I just left a session at a national conference that shall remain unnamed. I left because I am too mad to be civil anymore. I am beyond tired of consultants feeding community professionals bullshit in the guise of wisdom. No wonder they don’t trust us.
The session I left is on using economic impact studies to determine whether financial incentives are appropriate in economic development. I just taught a class on unravelling economic impact studies with Pete Mallow, so that part was somewhat of interest, and I’m teaching a training on use of incentives next month, so that part was the reason I went.
I had to leave halfway through before my budding anger and bad behavior got me in trouble.
The speaker, who I don’t know, carries that slick all-knowing persona that’s de rige ur ( along with a head of gray hair). His message? “Look how nice and straightforward and objective all of your incentives negotiations will be if you base them on the crystal clarity that an economic impact study (especially if done by us or using our software) gives you.
“”You want to know what an economic impact study includes? Well, first you take your direct costs, you plug them into the magic calculator, hocus pocus and…
“Voila! Here’s your number. Now you know what your incentives should be. Doesn’t that make you feel good?
“Want to project it out 10 years into the future? No problem. How easy we’ve made it for you!
“How did we get that number, you ask? Here’s the name of our magic multiplier source…that’s all you need to know, you know. Don’t worry about it. Trust us… We’re the experts.”
There is no way that an economic analysis is worth the memory it takes up in your inbox unless you understand exactly how that magic number was calculated and why the multipliers used were used. If the multipliers are straight out of some standard source, and your community is not identical in time and space to the geography used in that source, the analysis will not fit. Worse, there is no way in hell that a 10-year projection that lands on one number can be right. It’s statistically impossible. Any honest person who passed college statistics can tell you that.
Common sense when you think about it. And yet, people keep buying it. A roomful of people sat and listened and took notes and bought it.
Is it any wonder why consultants who work with local governments have such a bad reputation? In a complex, unpredictable, variable world, how can we offer simple, easy, prepackaged solutions… and sleep at night? How can we stay behind the curtain of the wizard facade in Oz without constant fear of being uncovered?
How much of the physical, fiscal, economic mess that our communities face can be laid at the feet of know-it-all consultants who offered easy, unrealistic answers… and never addressed the alternative outcomes, the unintended consequences? How many times can we leave a mess in our wake, relying on the fact that we can find another sucker down the road who won’t know about how badly we got this one wrong?
What’s it going to take before communities start to call us on it? What’s it going to take before we come to terms with our own lack of omniscience? When are we finally going to shift from arrogant know-it-all to what we should really be: wise advisors and facilitators. Listeners. Resources. Sources of perspective. Guides. Teachers.
Until then, what good do we do?
I have been trying to do the right thing for a long time, and I’ve described before how sometimes I’ve been guilty of telling a community what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. I try not to do that anymore.
But it takes two to polka. Community professionals have a role to play here, too. And that role is…. To not accept the bullshit. To not assume that a grey haired dude in a suit automatically knows how to lead you to the promised land.
Ask questions. Ask a lot of questions. Ask the stupid questions. Ask more questions if you don’t fully understand the answer.
Under no circumstances accept anything that even hints at “we’re the experts, trust us.” We should have learned by now that that dog don’t hunt.
If your consultant gives you a magic number out of a black box, run away. If your consultant makes it sound too easy, push for the details, probe for the grey areas. And if your consultant even begins to condescend to you, fire their ass. Period. They are not doing you any good.
So help me out here, folks: if I ever say I have the magic answer, if I ever say, just trust me…. Apply a blunt object to my head, ok?
Thanks…. Knew I could count on you.