The great fun of blogging is always the feedback. But when you have thoughtful critical thinkers for readers, the way I do here, sometimes their comments shine a bright and uncomfortable light on one of those spots where it might be easier to just leave in the shadows.
One of those came up last week in response to my article about Consultants as Wizards [expletive deleted]. After discussing with the person who wrote this comment, I changed his name (just in case his department head or city manager stumbles across it). But I felt that the questions he raised were too important to be left in the comment thread… and since these are questions that I am grappling with myself, I felt it was necessary to bring it out into the open.
I’m going to paste in the original comment from William P below, and then give you my perspective after that.
The more I see everyone’s comments and the original blog post, I am thinking that the profession of Economic Development is beginning to revolve around two universal axioms (neither of which are good in my opinion).
First, economic development seems to be more about the process than the product. From my perspective as a low-key half-time ED professional, economic development is nearly 85-90% about marketing and relationship building. I understand how those activities can play a role, but it’s role that seems too pronounced. What exactly are we marketing and how are these relationships going to help? Do we understand what differentiates us from our competitors in the economic development realm?
The second axiom is that economic development is more about outputs than outcomes. We get all excited when the new report comes out, or the new branding initiative hits or when the new restaurant breaks ground. And yes, that is important, but when do we go back and measure the effectiveness of those efforts? Are those jobs created by that restaurant moving the needle? Does that new watering hole instantly become a community asset? Did that new glossy handout convince anyone?
More process than product, and more output than outcome. William’s point is pretty damning: from his perspective in the trenches, the economic development profession doesn’t seem to be actually making a difference. Ow.
I received the following email from a friend (I’m also not going to use his name) at about the same time, and asked for his permission to reproduce part of his comments here, because I think he’s saying the same thing in a somewhat less… well, polite manner.
I really liked your last blog article on consultants. What a hoot!
As I reflect on it, I don’t think I work in economic development. I don’t subscribe to going to every [event] that exist and other activities that seem more social than actual work. These types of activities seem to be what economic development is all about. I often wonder if I should try to be one of those fancy certified ED professionals, but [the question in] my mind is why?
I am not trying to be insulting, but the practice of economic development doesn’t seem to have much “practice” to it. It just seems to be a bunch of high level BS speak based on hopes, dreams and poor assumptions. There has to be meat to these bones, right?
Scuse me while I squirm for a minute.
It’s hard not to see some truth in what these two are saying. The profession of economic development started out, historically, as a sales job — your mission was to entice businesses to come to your town or your state. Close the deal. Get the win. And you don’t have to spend a lot of time around economic developers to know that for many professionals, and many communities, selling is still the primary definition of the job. Going and schmoozing and relationship-building…it’s fundamentally the same work that the business development director of a company does. Make the sell, or make the connection that down the road might lead to a sell. But the sell – the win – is the name of the game. Sure, the targets are usually smaller now than they were in the halcyon days, and now we allocate at least some of our effort to trying to make that sell to our local businesses so that they don’t pick up and go somewhere else. But fundamentally, for many economic development professionals and organizations, the sell is still the purpose of the job.
There’s a problem with sales, and I say this as someone who tries to sell professional services every day: it’s can be pretty easy to sell someone something that they don’t need, and it’s awfully easy to sell someone something that you cannot or should not try to supply.
For economic development, it’s that second element that’s making me more and more uneasy. The purpose of economic development, fundamentally, isn’t just selling more and more and more. The purpose of economic development is to support the places that we live and work and play in – to improve their economies, help their people make a living, build the tax base that they need so that places can be kept clean and safe and comfortable. That’s why governments and communities and businesses fund these things.
But I think we’ve all had to admit in the last 20 years, at least to ourselves, that some of our economic development “wins” didn’t turn out to be wins at all – or at least not the happy, unambiguous wins that we might have told ourselves they were. Gave a sweet deal to a big box store and now you’re discover that your other commercial spaces are going dark? Recruited a distribution center and now you’re finding that the rate of police and ambulance calls there are far higher than expected? Provided tax increment financing for a shiny new office building, and now your city council is cutting the budget because tax revenue isn’t keeping up with service demands?
In a lot of cases, it’s pretty clear in hindsight that we sold something that we shouldn’t have sold – at least, not for the cheap price or with the bells and whistles that we sold it. And sometimes it seems like we’re not learning from our mistakes.
There are a lot of people who are doing good, thoughtful work in economic development – who are connecting the importance of their work to the health of their communities. There are people and communities who are trying to anticipate and head off the potential unintended consequences that some economic development projects present, and there are people and communities who are shifting toward a holistic perspective, toward growing a local economy that can provide its residents with long-term stability and resilience.
But then… there is the view from William P’s window. And it’s not the view I want to be shown. It shows an uncomfortable lack of critical thinking, a failing to learn from the past mistakes of the profession, and a tendency to overlook or ignore the ways in which new projects and exciting proposals can create more problems for the community we’re working for than they solve.
Instead, the view from William P’s window shows a playground-style tally sheet: points for me on this side, points for you on that side. Get more points in my column than yours, and I win! Simple as that.
Except that winning at that game may actually do no good at all.
So…I need some help here. Who is going to come to the defense of economic development? Who is going to tell William P that marketing and networking is actually worth that 90% of our economic development effort? That the sale is truly the thing that economic development needs to do – that the pursuit of the next score isn’t just about the ego trip of winning the game?
Who’s going to tell him that it’s someone else’s job to worry about what happens after the sale is closed?
Some of you might assume that the last two paragraphs are rhetorical flourish. And there’s probably a little of that. But I truly need answers to those questions. I need to understand, for myself and for the people like William P and my email correspondent that I encounter regularly, whether or not that approach to economic development has legitimacy. I don’t see it, and I want very much to understand whether I am missing something important.
So please, I’m serious, tell me in the comment box below. Help me stop squirming… and help me help William P see the benefit of the economic development profession.