Story Time: Help share The Local Economy Revolution at SXSW 2016

The international tech mega-conference South By Southwest Interactive has been showing more and more interest in remaking local government in recent years.  But even though conference organizers pretty clearly want to talk about it, they seem to get only a few submissions for panels or presentations on those topics.

As you might guess if you’ve read anything from this book, we’d be glad to oblige.

I’ve submitted to do a short reading and discussion from The Local Economy Revolution at next year’s SXSW, and as is their usual practice, part of how they choose submissions depends on popular votes.  That’s where you come in.

If you think that the social entrepreneurs, tech wizard, startup mavens and the thousands of other people who attend SXSW might benefit from an introduction to how they can help transform their own communities, I’d be grateful for your support.  Voting is quick, free and easy (it does involve a basic sign-in that lets you review and vote on all the submissions), and you don’t have to be planning to attend the conference to vote.

To vote, just click here

How to Do Public Meetings That Aren’t Miserable — and Actually Make Your Community Better

The International Economic Development Council’s ED Now ran anarticle last week that I wrote to explain why economic development people should be thinking about how to do public engagement more effectively — and why the ways we’ve been taught (or not taught) to “engage” the public so often end in anger and misery — for the public, and for you. It gives you a little introduction to theCrowdfunding Wisdom approach to public engagement, which is designed to give you more useful information and your residents and business owners a more positive and more constructive experience.

If you’re an IEDC member, you can check out the article here. For the rest of you, I’ll post an earlier draft here. If you want to learn more, check out the book atwww.CrowdsourcingWisdomBook.com.

 — —

We have a problem with how we deal with the public. We have this problem in all types of government and community professions, but the more we find ourselves required to work with business owners and residents and community groups, the more this problem threatens to further impair our ability to help our communities.

The Problem

The methods, the assumptions that we rely on to figure out what people want their governments to do, to try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, to get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

They’re not working. Too often, the only response we get is a useless, ill-informed, sometimes crazy response. And on top of that, we fail to hear from the thousands who could very well know something crucial to developing useful plans, setting effective policy. And whose support we need to build political support for the hard decisions that our communities increasingly have to make.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live. They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what we do.

The International Economic Development Council’s ED Now ran an articlelast week that I wrote to explain why economic development people should be thinking about how to do public engagement more effectively — and why the ways we’ve been taught (or not taught) to “engage” the public so often end in anger and misery — for the public, and for you. It gives you a little introduction to the Crowdfunding Wisdom approach to public engagement, which is designed to give you more useful information and your residents and business owners a more positive and more constructive experience.

If you’re an IEDC member, you can check out the article here. For the rest of you, I’ll post an earlier draft here. If you want to learn more, check out the book atwww.CrowdsourcingWisdomBook.com.

— —

We have a problem with how we deal with the public. We have this problem in all types of government and community professions, but the more we find ourselves required to work with business owners and residents and community groups, the more this problem threatens to further impair our ability to help our communities.

The Problem

The methods, the assumptions that we rely on to figure out what people want their governments to do, to try to get them to understand why we’re building this or that, to get people involved in decisions the way we know we should…

They’re not working. Too often, the only response we get is a useless, ill-informed, sometimes crazy response. And on top of that, we fail to hear from the thousands who could very well know something crucial to developing useful plans, setting effective policy. And whose support we need to build political support for the hard decisions that our communities increasingly have to make.

Those people are not failing to participate because they don’t care about the places where they live. They’re not failing to participate because they don’t care what we do.

They’re failing to participate because the way we do these meetings gives them a pretty clear message that we don’t want them to have a meaningful role in the process.

What we really want, in the depth of our guts, in the place where the reasons why we went into this profession or ran for office or went on this committee still live, is to help make this community better. We want to make the right decisions, anticipate and address the issues that might affect the community in the future, use the money and people and other resources that the community has as wisely as we can.

And if we’re really honest, we often have to admit: we don’t know how to do that.

Ten or 30 or 40 years ago, our predecessors in these roles hired Experts — Big Deal Architects, Big Name Economic Development Types, Big Budget Think Tanks, people who offered Big and Easy Solutions.

As you might have noticed, a lot of those haven’t worked. When you look back on the projections, the visions, the promises, what they said and what came to pass very often don’t match up. And for many of us, the great challenge that faces us today consists of trying to fix or undo the damage that those Big Solutions caused.

As the era we live in becomes more and more unpredictable, as we start seeing ever so acutely how one issue in our community unexpectedly impacts another, as we realize that the future, whatever it will be, probably won’t be a simple linear extrapolation of past growth…

We come to realize that expertise based on the past has less and less relevance. Even major business publications are questioning the purpose, the most rudimentary value, of expert advising.[i] They’ve been lead down the wrong path a few times as well.

Private sector businesses, from the largest to the smallest, are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing to try to get a handle on the emerging issues, the disruptions and the out-of-left-field new ideas that have the potential to catapult them into a market lead (or, if they miss it, shatter them to bits). Crowdsourcing enables businesses to gather ideas, solutions, designs, sometimes even blueprints, from a wider range of people than they could every employ or contract on their own.

And even more surprisingly, businesses increasingly use the “crowd” to sift through the options and select the ones that will work best. Academic research[ii] has been demonstrating for a few years that the Crowd does these two steps better than the Experts, and that crowd-designed and crowd-selected results tend to perform better on a variety of measures than when experts design and select them.

Businesses have to work like fury to attract their Crowd. They put a huge amount of effort into reaching their Crowd, convincing their Crowd that it’s worth their time to participate, keeping their Crowd plugged in and participating. Their ability to provide value depends on their Crowd, and when you’re crowdsourcing for T-shirts or motorbikes, you’re competing for their attention with a lot of other shiny but not all that important products.

In our world, where we’re trying to make communities better, we’ve got a Crowd that’s eager and waiting for their chance to participate.

We already have what those businesses are spending so much money to build.

We just need to open the doors, to give them a way to participate, in a way that matters.

But just asking isn’t enough

If you’ve been around the block a few times, you know what happened the last time you asked residents what they wanted. I often compare the responses we get to the lists that my kids used to prepare for Santa Claus:

“I want a dollhouse… and a pony… and a rocket launcher… and a baby brother…and a unicorn…”

Kids eventually figure out that Santa Claus can’t actually deliver the way he promised, and that’s when they start questioning our whole system of magic-holiday-gift-givers.

Adults who respond to a civic invitation to identify their “vision” or give their “recommendations” often don’t know that what they’re offering is at the same level of realism as that baby brother or unicorn. If you don’t know the ins and outs of zoning regs and state enabling regulations and nonprofit funding sources, you’re not going to know that what you’re asking for isn’t feasible. And the way we community leaders handle those uninformed requests looks a whole lot like how we as parents handle Santa Claus questions: we sidestep, we hem and haw, we make empty promises to “see what happens,” and then… we fail to deliver, with no comment.

If we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel. We need to enable, empower them to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk cause-effect assumptions. We need to

  • Draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get,
  • Get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and
  • Engage them — get their hands deeply into — the search for solutions… solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

We often shy away from that, because we don’t trust the public. We’re afraid they’ll say something crazy, they’ll have different ideas, that they won’t Get It. But chances are, there’s something we’re not Getting, either. The crucial, and too often missing piece, is that we have to create a structure in which constructive collaboration between us and them can happen.

How to CrowdSource Wisdom

Every Crowdsourcing Wisdom event works a little differently, and the details of how you fit the process to the people cannot be overlooked. But here is the basic structure:

  1. Meeting attendees work together in small groups. Whenever possible, it’s good to make the groups random so that people are less likely to be working with people who are exactly the same as they are.
  2. Establish some basic rules of engagement — guidance as to treat each other, how to make decisions, how to resolve disputes, and so on. Basic rules of engagement give everybody some confidence that they will be able to participate, and have a fair chance to be heard — and it gives them the power to stand up if someone is trying to hog all the attention.
  3. The group has a specific activity that they need to complete together. This is more complex than “do you like this design or not?” The group activity might have to do with analyzing the factors behind an issue, designing a potential solution to a thorny problem, or setting priorities for future programs. Each group does its work together on a large paper that walks them through the process.
  4. The groups work largely independently. My big work was on the front end — planning the activities, preparing the materials, setting up the groups and framing the rules. Once the activity is underway, I focus on monitoring, sensing emerging issues, fine-tuning and redirecting if a group gets lost in the weeds or can’t seem to come to a conclusion.
  5. The group shares its work with the rest of the participants, so that everyone gets to understand what the other groups did.
  6. Everyone has an opportunity for individual response. This might involve “voting” for their top priorities across all of the groups’ solutions, or allocating “money” to indicate where they think the majority of the effort should go.
  7. The results of the meeting are clear for everyone to see. Since everything was done on paper, there’s no question about whether some staffer with an agenda accurately reported the results, or took a colorful quote out of context, or mis-interpreted a minority position as The Conclusion.

The Results

I learned to use methods like this during my early career as a middle school teacher, and I’ve used Crowdsourcing Wisdom methods in dozens of communities and with thousands of people over the last 20 years. And this is what I consistently find:

  • The people who participate feel like they’ve been asked to do something worthwhile. They feel like the participation has been worth the time and effort they invested.
  • The officials and staff feel like they have gained useful information. They have a clear picture of what the community values, where its priorities, lie, what it should focus on.
  • Officials, staff and participants feel like they have been part of a positive experience. They’ve built relationships with people, they’ve been able to focus on positives instead of just complaining, and they feel like they might actually have some power to help make their community better.
  • Even just one Crowdsourcing Wisdom event seems to start to overcome all those decades of bad public meeting experience. Suddenly, attending a public meeting doesn’t look like such a bad idea.

Learn more about Crowdsourcing Wisdom at http://crowdfundingwisdombook.com

[i] Ron Ashkenas, “Change Management Needs to Change.” Harvard Business Review, April 16, 2013. https://hbr.org/2013/04/change-management-needs-to-cha.

[ii] Brad Power, “Improve Decision-Making with Help from the Crowd.” Harvard Business Review, April 8, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/04/improve-decision-making-with-help-from-the-crowd/.

Do Business Recruitment and Retention Right: a guide from Sara Dunnigan

My friend Sara Dunnigan just announced that she is leaving the world of consulting to become the Executive Director of the Virginia Board of Workforce Development, a job that perfectly fits the most enthusiastic Make Our Existing Businesses More Successful professional in the economic development profession.

Thankfully, before she moved on, she wrote up her research on best practices in state-level business retention and expansion (BRE) programs. And that’s fantastically good stuff for you, no matter how you are or are not actually involved in BRE.  That’s partly because business retention/recruitment is so crucially imporant, but so often overlooked in favor of the big game hunt, but also because there’s good advice in there for making any initiative work.

You should go read the whole thing, but here’s a few of her key findings.  The most effective programs Sara studied had the following:

 

1) An integrated, statewide strategic plan for economic development. Ok, this sounds simple. Your state has a plan, right? I was amazed how strong the planning efforts were in the exemplary states. And BRE was front and center, on par with business attraction and situated right alongside workforce development. That gets me excited. So dust off that plan and tell me where it leads you.

2) Clear, measurable outcomes and program objectives. Economic developers all over are catching some heat for a lack of accountability, but the best BRE programs I reviewed charged in straight away with stated goals and very specific programs of work. Even better, they reported regularly with their results. And when they didn’t hit the mark, they weren’t afraid to change course and say why. I think outcomes say a lot about an organization. They shed a light on what an organization values and they should elicit some sort of emotional response. I could tell people were excited about what they were tasked to achieve when I talked to them. This creates momentum.

3) Dedicated leadership and outreach teams with appropriately matched resources. BRE is often the most understaffed area in economic development. Forced to do a lot with a little, most programs languish, never reaching their full potential. The best programs I found had staff and had them deployed in a way that made a big impact. That’s not to say every state had a huge stable of developers combing the countryside. They leveraged regional and local partners. Think matrix organization.

4) Strategic research and sophisticated firm targeting methods. Good news – no more random samples and mindless business surveys. The best programs I found are using business intelligence and predictive models to find and support high-impact, growth-oriented firms. This is probably one of the most underutilized approaches, despite the availability of both industry and firm-level data, but I am hopeful the places investing here will see big yields.

5) Coordinated outreach and business intelligence gathering. Ask any BRE program manager what their biggest constraint is, and they’ll likely tell youtime. It’s the time needed to talk to firms and do that critical needs assessment PLUS respond PLUS ongoing monitoring. The most creative programs have figured out how to leverage partnerships to get more people in the field and use technology to monitor firm-level activity in a more real-time way. They have also figured out how to open up more continuous conversations and pull in business intel from disparate sources. And then they share it with the team so people can act on it. Yep, you read it here first.

6) A comprehensive, value-added service delivery system. This is where the magic happens. I was blown away by some of the tactics being used to link companies to resources in new and different ways. The siloed case management approach is falling by the wayside and new network models are emerging. Sometimes it’s simply combining existing assets in novel new ways. It requires a framework and common goals, but it can be done. It’s all about leadership. There’s also a fair amount of investment in industry-led consortia models where businesses organize their own service array. It’s ok. Buy the coffee and get out of the way.

7) Emphasis on capacity building and professional development for the economic development community. You know I’m a big fan of leveling up the profession and almost every manager I spoke with quickly and enthusiastically acknowledged the importance of professional development. National and state associations made the list, but training that supported this new way of doing business, developed specific industry knowledge, and supported the unique work of BRE program managers was also mentioned. Think everything from CEcD to PMP.

8) A supporting technology platform or CRM. Last but not least was the enthusiastic endorsement (and actually utilization) of a robust client relationship management system. The best ones let people put information IN but also lets you get in OUT in an organized fashion, not just to track activity, but also analyze trends and extract very specific data on firm characteristics. Again, the most progressive organization weren’t using their CRM to cover their collective asses, but were actually working to build a strategic project management and business intelligence system. (Sorry, I said asses.)

 

You can read more and grab Sara’s white paper here.

Thanks, congratulations, and knock em dead, Sara!

Unintended impacts: the 21-mile walking commute and what that really says about our decisions.

What-you-do-will-have-impacts-you-didn’t-expect is probably one of the strongest themes in the Local Economy Revolution Book.  As I describe in there, one of my earliest encounters with the profession of planning resulted from being hip-deep in the aftereffects of  a massive urban renewal project in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  No matter what I did, where I was, which building I worked on, who I dealt with, most of my professional time and energy seemed to get tangled in trying to address the aftershocks of a decision to tear down a large part of the city’s downtown and put in a shopping mall.

From the loss of identity and relative paucity of what we now call “sense of place,” to the downtown’s economic decline and the displacement of residents and businesses of modest means more than two decades before, it seemed like everything I did in that community in the 90s had to do with trying to repair the stress fractures that emanated from that event.

The decisions we make as residents and officials have long-term repercussions that extend like shock waves into the future, and the bigger the thing we try to do, the number and intensity of those shock waves seems to grow exponentially.  But too often, when we make those decisions, we do little more than pay lip service to that potential.

I thought about this as I read CityLab’s excellent analysis of the recent crowdfunding phenomena around a dedicated gentleman whose story of a 21-mile commute to work on foot led to a huge outpouring of support.  It’s a heartwarming story, but CityLab did an excellent job of teasing out the bigger story:

 

Just think about it for a moment: strangers are falling over themselves to help subsidize a personal vehicle for one individual (although insurance, gas, and maintenance are obviously on him going forward), but voters in dozens of suburban communities in the Detroit area have voted to “opt out” of the region’s public transportation system. In so doing they have shut down job opportunities for thousands of area residents who are eager for employment, and denied employers access to untapped sources of labor. [….]

Strong regional public transit systems help people to find employment and keep it, which is a good thing for everyone. But many regions shrink from making tax contributions to such systems because they like to think of themselves as being separate from those who need public transit. They don’t want to think about a scenario in which they or one of their family members or friends might not be able to drive because of medical or financial reasons.

 

I usually shy away from writing directly about transportation issues, mostly because platforms like Streetsblog cover that topic better than I have the energy to do. But there’s a prime example of unintended consequences here.  These are oversimplified, but consider:

  1. Community decides not to fund transit.
  2. Increasing numbers of people can’t afford to travel to work because service jobs do not pay as well as the blue collar jobs they replaced and because cars are expensive (and cheap cars are both expensive and unpredictable, which screws up that whole getting to work thing pretty regularly).
  3. People struggle to make a living.
  4. Money available in local economy declines and gets shifted from local goods and services to cheaper goods and services provided by big suppliers who can cut costs and survive on narrow margins due to standardization and massive volume.
  5. Tax revenues decline while needs of residents increase
  6. People who have the means and ability to move, do, while those who have less means or ability stay.
  7. Return to #3, repeat cycle.

Ok, yes, that’s certainly not the whole story, and there’s a whole lot of other factors in community economic health and decline, and transit isn’t the only factor, etc. etc.  I gave you a model, not a full-blown system.  But consider: in our guts, we understand that all of these things, from employment to local business to tax revenue, have at least a decent chance of being logically and systematically connected.

And yet, after all these years of knowing this, how often do we conveniently close off those connections in making these decisions?

I use “we” a lot, because these big issues are about all of us, whether we are professionals, electeds, or plain ol’ resident/voters/potential voters.  We all have a piece of this.

We don’t talk about the connections because they’re hard, they’re hard to prove, they’re complicated.

Unfortunately, tough crap for us.  We gotta do it anyways.

 

Yes, we really are all confident idiots

At one point during South by Southwest, [talk show host Jimmy] Kimmel’s crew approached a poised young woman with brown hair. “What have you heard about Tonya and the Hardings?” the interviewer asked. “Have you heard they’re kind of hard-hitting?” Failing to pick up on this verbal wink, the woman launched into an elaborate response about the fictitious band. “Yeah, a lot of men have been talking about them, saying they’re really impressed,” she replied. “They’re usually not fans of female groups, but they’re really making a statement.” From some mental gossamer, she was able to spin an authoritative review of Tonya and the Hardings incorporating certain detailed facts: that they’re real; that they’re female (never mind that, say, Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper aren’t); and that they’re a tough, boundary-breaking group.

One of the most worrisome elements of the book (and one that, in an alternative lifetime, I might have spent more time on), is the question of how our mental biases and shortcomings get in the way of making the right decisions for communities.  This also plays a big role in my suspicion of experts — the risk that the podium – commanding expert doesn’t know what he’s talking about is a lot higher than we’d like to admit.

This article, from Pacific Standard does a lovely job of illustrating some of that (and using a late-night humor piece to do it, to boot — read the article for more of these great goofs).   Take a look at part of the rest:

In the more solemn confines of a research lab at Cornell University, the psychologists Stav Atir, Emily Rosenzweig, and I carry out ongoing research that amounts to a carefully controlled, less flamboyant version of Jimmy Kimmel’s bit. In our work, we ask survey respondents if they are familiar with certain technical concepts from physics, biology, politics, and geography. A fair number claim familiarity with genuine terms like centripetal force and photon. But interestingly, they also claim some familiarity with concepts that are entirely made up, such as the plates of parallax, ultra-lipid, and cholarine. In one study, roughly 90 percent claimed some knowledge of at least one of the nine fictitious concepts we asked them about. In fact, the more well versed respondents considered themselves in a general topic, the more familiarity they claimed with the meaningless terms associated with it in the survey. [….]

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by somethingthat feels to them like knowledge.

This isn’t just an armchair theory. A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge.

Of course, there’s ways to at least attempt to counteract these kinds of mistakes.  We can:

  • Broaden the number and the type of people who are actively participating, so that we up our chances of someone catching the mistakes.  Of course, that means sharing ownership of the topic and creating an environment where everyone knows that questioning is desired.
  • Lay out the underlying expectations explicitly.  Making very clear what we’re trying to achieve and what we know and don’t know about it makes it harder to launch off down the wrong path– and a little easier to see when someone else is.
  • Establish as a ground rule that it’s OK to make mistakes, to float trial balloons.  The biggest reason why people get caught in the Dunning-Kruger effect is probably the fear that they’ll be laughed at if they say the honest “I don’t know.”

Others, I’m sure.  What would you add to that list?

A Must-Read: Ellen Harpel’s 6 steps to smart incentives use

There are very few people that I will Tweet or post sight unseen (which apparently gives me another piece of weirdness cred).  Ellen Harpel of SmartIncentives.org is about the only one for which I will do that consistently.  Her understanding of the potential and failures of economic development incentives (a topic that I gave a lot of space to in the book), eclipse pretty much everyone.

This not-so-recent-but-still-spot-on post sums up her approach and gives valuable links to deeper explanations.  I’m pasting in her text here, but the hyperlinks are to her pages.

In short: read, follow and learn.  And then do.  And my deep thanks to Ellen for articulating all of this so clearly and concisely.

cut up money

Photo via Tax Credits/Creative Commons

 

  • Define the goal of each incentive clearly.   This is a surprising gap in many incentive programs. You can’t tell if it is working if you don’t know what it is supposed to achieve.
  • Review your entire portfolio of incentive programs to understand risks, costs and to make sure it is aligned with your overall economic development strategy.  Make adjustments and rebalance as necessary.
  • Conduct background research on incentive applicants. This is especially important for small firms and start-ups that are increasingly the focus of many incentive policies. The more you know about a company, the better deal you can create for both the business and your community.
  • Perform due diligence on the deal.  An incentive deal is an investment for the community.  As with any investment, a lot can go wrong. Due diligence can strengthen your hand during negotiations and lead to better outcomes.
  • Conduct an “ROI” analysis for your community by considering how well the project fits your strategy, the fiscal implications, and the potential economic impact.  It may seem expensive, but it is worthwhile to devote some resources upfront to make better decisions and communicate the rationale for those decisions to stakeholders.
  • Track performance.  Monitor and report on compliance with performance agreements.  Economic development organizations need resources to manage and monitor incentives, as well as to enforce contract provisions when necessary, not just make the awards.