Random Excerpt: The problem with Life on the Playground-style government

Every week I open The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help  to a random location and copy that section out here. Interested in what you read? Check out the book for print or e-reader here.  

And tell ’em I sent you.  Well, actually, don’t, because that means you telling me that I sent you to me, and that’s a little weird.  Nevermind.  

 

Life on the Playground

 

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 these activities can play a role, but it’s a role that seems too pronounced.  What exactly are we marketing and how are these relationships going to help?….We get all excited when the new report comes out, or the new branding initiative hits or the new restaurant breaks ground…when do we go back and measure the effectiveness of those efforts?  Are those jobs created by the restaurant moving the needle?  Does that watering hole become a community asset?

-An email correspondent after a blog post.  Used by permission but name withheld by request.

More process than product, and more output than outcome.  The point is pretty damning: from the writer’s perspective in the trenches, the economic development profession doesn’t seem to be actually making a difference.

‘Scuse me while I squirm for a minute.

kids on playground

(Photo: Sergey Ivanov/Creative Commons)

___

It’s hard not to see some truth in what this writer is saying.

The profession of economic development started out, historically, as a sales job.  Our 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 – too easily becomes the name of the game.  Sure, the targets are usually smaller 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.

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 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 your operating 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 my correspondent’s window, and that of others who write to me out of frustration.  And it’s not the view I want them to see, or the view that I want to be shown.  It frames 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 their 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.

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