Are Economic Development Metrics Becoming White Noise?

 

If $27.5B in new tax revenue and the creation of at least 25,000 high-paying jobs are not the right metrics to convince stakeholders to support a project like Amazon, is that telling us that EDO metrics have become just white noise?

 

To be clear, EDOs should be tracking metrics. Performance measurement and metrics are, and will continue to be, important for EDOs to track. As with New York’s Amazon deal, EDOs are facing an increasing amount of criticism from both the political left and right over economic development incentives, which has created a need for us to justify what we do. If you are an EDO that is not currently using metrics to track performance, we recommend a few steps to getting started:

 

 

The key to these steps is to determine which audience you want to inform, and then identify the core metrics that they would most want to hear about.

However, when a project with metrics that are as favorable on paper as Amazon’s now defunct New York HQ2, it’s clear that metrics in economic development are no longer just about the numbers. While there is a need for transparency to show the benefits of economic development work, and how public resources are being utilized to create that public benefit, the amount of data that we encounter on a daily basis means that the numbers behind development projects are becoming white noise. In economic development, we hear a lot about “X” number of new jobs, “X” new investment, and “X” new wages.

While these numbers are important for assessing projects, benchmarking organizations, and executing projects, the stories behind the numbers are critical to making the case for support and funding. Public relations success depends on economic developers telling the real-life stories of how their work is changing the lives of individuals and their families.

At the 2018 South Carolina Economic Developers’ Association’s annual meeting in Hilton Head Island, I was lucky enough to listen to the state’s Secretary of Commerce, Robert M. Hitt III, speak on economic development successes. He shared an impactful story: A woman came up to him at an economic development event and thanked him for the work that he had done on a large economic development project in Charleston, SC. This project had a profound impact on her life, as it allowed her to go from driving for Uber to having a job with better wages and healthcare benefits for her family. This was a memorable story for me and the other conference attendees, and this is not an isolated story.

 

We, as economic developers, have these stories.

While illustrating success through metrics is good (and necessary), partnering the numbers with stories like this is what will ultimately generate favorable and strong public support. Through these stories, economic developers can show the left that these projects are not necessarily corporate welfare and can show the right that public investment in projects and communities has an important social impact, ultimately uniting the public behind common goals.

 


 

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