Community economic development a one-trick pony?

One can reach peak planning moments when one reads a serious study about community economic development (CED), such as the Barrow Cadbury report cited recently by Sarah Longlands, which I appreciate. Included here are a few key insights deserving a saddle to ride on, yet there are also some cautionary views to indicate that the horse needs to stay in the barn.

The report acknowledges the fact that ‘very few studies . . . do any comparative analysis of the socio-economic impacts of the different economic development approaches.’  I don’t know about the UK, but in the US, we only have one approach;  I call it our ‘one-trick pony’.  All we do is support, subsidise, carry, and defend corporations; they hijacked the community economic development term long ago from the public sector and call their efforts ‘economic development’.  But in fact, they simply carry out business development activities, joined by urban planners and their built environment agenda.

Professional malpractice occurs when CED planners and officials do not understand the critical difference between one and the other. Private interests have their legitimate objectives, but so does the public sector. Private interests hire business development specialists, not economic development specialists.  They seek ‘economic growth’, we seek specific socio-economic outcomes in areas where needs are greatest; as honest partners, there is a lot we can accomplish.

This is why ‘analysis of the socio-economic impacts’ is significant, because this focus is our bread-and-butter, precisely where true CED needs to be.  CED is a public term; let’s talk about what we need to do. Only by understanding this basic concept can we finally graduate to another level, leading to higher-order conceptualising, shaping, executing, and delivering quality results.

Now for the cautionary observations. Much of this ‘review of the literature’ is well known.  Perhaps we can advance the idea that hence 2012, all CED reports summarize in bullet form ‘what we know’, either in the preamble or at the end of the report.  Let’s concentrate on the meat of the matter, which in my view melts down to standards of living and quality of life metrics.

My own city of San Antonio is a case in point.  Over generations, the media and Chambers report a ‘healthy’ business climate, favorable for investment, and glowing forecasts of prosperity unto the future. Yet, all those years, we remain a poor city, with structural poverty of 20 per cent.  Settled into official minds is that we should simply manage the problem rather than tackle it in earnest; the status quo remains.

While descriptive detail of business enterprise is instructive, these retail success formulations can properly be undertaken by the Chambers of Commerce, for example; this is their bailiwick.  Ours is the other side of the coin: socio-economic policy entrepreneurship.  We, too, need a healthy balance sheet.  In this arena our planners need to become prescriptive, pointing out the policy-programmatic-assessment scheme which best leads to desired outcomes, surpassing those typical gross indicators.

The one-trick approach is one which assumes that the market economy toolkit will lift all boats. It’s a testament to its enduring industrial-era legacy, but nostalgia dies hard.  We are in the new economy, adjustments need to be made at the pace a vibrant economy requires; serious gaps must be filled.  On this score, CED planners earn a failing grade, because we haven’t been honest enough to admit that conventional approaches will continue to separate the winners from the losers.

I’m fully supportive of the market enterprise system, as it is the engine of real broad-based prosperity.  But we need greater competency and understanding of our proper role representing the public sector perspective.  We need public champions.  We need specific socio-economic objectives and a sense of urgency, which the Cadbury report does not address. We need to work back from those key benchmarks, such that dedicated resources and expertise propel us toward the outcomes we seek, pants-on-fire style.

The Cadbury report speaks to this need: ‘key to a successful economy [is] effective working between public and private sector networks’.  Let’s cut to the chase:  reduce this report to a SWOT framework, which clarifies in bullet form what needs to be strengthened, what weaknesses need to be addressed, what opportunities need to be captured, and what threats need to be neutered.  What can be clearer?

Undertaking this approach will set you distinctly apart from the same old horse,  and riding a stallion instead, I do believe.


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