Institutional muck makes for cloudy waters

It’s truly amazing the amount of quality material and insights from many sources which I come across daily, local to international.  The upside is that these pertinent titbits are deserving of distribution into the right hands, with the assumption that they represent ‘best thinking’ on a particular issue or topic. The downside is that I know that this is wishful thinking, as I do not see that we yet have a way to assure for this practice, working with colleagues who are on the same page. Can we tackle this one?

There’s the Campbell Collaborative, an economics methods group, which could serve as guide to expand upon our practice in community economic development, led by our peer group. There’s Boston, MA’s Community Indicators benchmarking system, a prime example of a useful planning and implementation document, alive with viable possibilities beyond the minimum effort. There’s the Rowntree Foundation, ‘inspiring social change’, and Manchester’s ‘creative class’ innovations.

There’s the pro-built environment Institute of Land Policy’s ‘Rethinking Property Tax Incentives’ (June, 2012) Policy Report declaring that ‘there is little evidence that these (massive) tax incentives are an effective instrument to promote economic development’, after 50 years! It’s like saying the glory of a market economy is predicated upon a false premise.

But, who is steering our ship of state into calmer waters? We are all touching the elephant with blind eyes and no one is dealing with the elephant. It isn’t important to have decentralized authority to do this if it still doesn’t add up. In the U.S., our local entities have long had liberties to be economically pro-active, yet we live with big structural and imaginative limitations. No one would ever claim ‘our efforts are the best we can do’, nor would anyone say, ‘this is how we’re going to address economic inequality’, as we do not know what’s optimum, what strategies advance our agenda better than other efforts, what is best international practice. Symbolic gestures pass for economic development.  Politicians hold the purse strings and we are afraid to challenge their personal agendas.

More than ever, we need strong, articulate leadership. We need someone who understands the difference between business promotion, development, or activities and demand-led economic development. Similarly, someone who understands that a program or project is not the same as a strategic plan, or, that someone with an opinion about community development is not the same as someone with informed or expert opinion, yet too many influence resource allocation or policy direction without the grounding they need to better address our needs.

If fundamental principles mean anything, we know our public and private sectors play their respective roles, at all levels of government. While language, customs, and culture bind us together, economics keeps us vibrant, so long as the two don’t get into each other’s way, but find ways to coordinate. That’s the ideal. Unfortunately, both sectors have gotten into each other’s business too deeply. The private sector now claims to undertake ‘economic development’ and the public sector now teach business practices, contracting, and so on.  This state of affairs could easily take two future articles, would assuredly cause consternation to those invested in the status quo, and I’d become the punching bag at the office cooler. That’s OK with me; now let’s address this serious problem.

As one who has worked almost equally in both sectors, 15 years in each, I need convincing arguments to justify actions and policies which defy common sense, if indeed common sense is common, unless artifice is valued over fundamental truths. By and large, business interests are more efficient than the public sector, and, the public sector can best address ‘the common good’ than the private sector. Why mess up a good fundamental? It’s because it’s too tempting to avoid, and, I guess people are bored with their essential responsibilities. Another reason is simple job security, funded by government. Who will pick up the banner to promote common sense? Today, in this contest, artifice wins the day.

Economic policies, properly implemented, financed, evaluated, and adjusted, need to be designed having forward and backward linkages, to maximize positive outcomes, and to best close socioeconomic gaps. If done with transparency, unified, prioritized, and measured, all the better. This type of benchmarking system is popular and should be the minimum we see in every community.

I welcome your views.


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