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Friday, August 20, 2010

Strategies to Connect People to Policy: Communicating Economic Development to Residents | By: Harriet Lewis, PhD

How much information do residents need prior to the execution of a new economic development initiative?

Now, I’m not referring to economic development activities such as recruiting specific companies to bring jobs, because in the competitive market, confidentiality is key. Nor am I referring to activities such as economic development strategy development. I believe the trained professional should be allowed to develop the map for the community. I am referring to the specifics—such as the "how we will get there": 
Will it require additional taxes for residents?

Will we need to offer special incentives that may be counter-productive to economic development in order to attract firms?

Does it create the jobs that residents are eager and able to perform?

Too often local residents believe there is an attempt by economic development professionals to take advantage of them. It really does not matter whether or not there is any truth to the belief, the fact that the belief exists creates challenges for politicians and economic development professionals.

Economic development professionals are charged with creating an engine in the community that will spur jobs and improve the quality of life for its citizens, and at times, this involves attracting out-of-state businesses through incentives and ready-built infrastructure. In an ideal situation, the newly created jobs would offer salaries to support a family and improve their quality of life; unfortunately, too often this is not the case. It is also an unfortunate situation when there is a need for policy makers to leverage public revenues, in the hopes of attracting industry—industry that will come not this year, but a few years after new infrastructure has been built—to create the jobs that are needed now. Residents understand these challenges, but they don’t particularly like to be the last to find out—especially when they are being asked to foot the bill.

So what’s an economic development professional to do?

How can they get the support they need from the community in order to move initiatives forward without too much hassle?

Perhaps try communicating economic development ideas and plans with the community...

Residents seek transparency. Usually, when an economic development project encounters resistance from residents, it is because the residents do not believe that the economic development professionals are transparent and accountable in their actions to promote the community using tax dollars.

Economic development professionals need to act in a “community-oriented” way in relation to how they communicate with local residents.

There are three principles for communication that should be considered: focal point, accessibility and medium (aka FAM)...

First, the focal point is the single location for information. Information should not be “officially” coming from multiple economic development actors in a community. Economic development players need to determine who that entity will be to disseminate information as the “source”. In a municipality, should it be the city’s economic development department, the local chamber of commerce or the local private/public partnership? I don’t know, but it needs to be one entity disseminating the information, because other than that, the official information appears to be unorganized, political maneuvering, and counter-productive.

Second, the information must be accessible to everyone in the community. Too often the informed are the few members of the community who sit on economic development boards and local government committees, who at times have agendas of their own. When it is time to set an initiative in motion where community support is required, the community is uninformed. Local economic development officials need to launch a community-wide information campaign, aimed at various constituencies, to ensure broad representation of feedback for its initiatives.

Finally, the medium is the mode of communication used to connect people to policy. Proposed policies and new initiatives must be communicated broadly through a variety of media to reach every type of resident.

These should include the following:
  • Hold regular town hall meetings
    Typically, there are opportunities for audience feedback in city council meetings, however there also needs to be regularly bi-monthly or quarterly community-wide meetings with one or two agenda items. These meetings should be widely advertised through local media and other outlets. At these meetings, information about proposed economic development initiatives should be presented. Audience participants should be allowed time to ask questions, evaluate the pros and cons of the initiative, and present alternative strategies to be considered at that meeting or perhaps at the one in the future.
  • Capitalize on social media
    Economic development professionals must capitalize on the current trend of social media. Many of the constituents participate in social media. They need to have a presence on sites such as facebook, and perhaps a blog, in order to disseminate information and solicit feedback from interested audiences.
  • e-Government websites
    Local governments and economic development agencies need to use their websites as much as possible as a source to disseminate information and solicit feedback. Economic development proposal summaries can be posted so that residents will have access to information in a written form to review at their leisure.
  • Survey and Poll residents
    It is important to survey and poll residents regularly to ensure that they understand the initiatives being put forth that affect their daily lives, and to measure the effectiveness of the strategies or the delivery of the information. These surveys and polls should be random and scientific, outside of the current network of feedback like the e-Government websites and social media forums, and completed by third parties. This strategy should be implemented throughout the year for various initiatives.

The key to these strategies and the purpose of this article is to encourage opportunities to connect local residents to economic development initiatives early, in order to minimize backlash later.

Local economic development officials at a minimum must appear to be transparent to the local resident if they seek their support. This can be accomplished by employing the FAM principles. The days of assuming that one may be able slip a referendum on a ballot to be passed without backlash are over.

More importantly, why would an economic development professional want to slip something through, if it is really for the people?

Harriet Lewis, PhD is the Co-Founder/President of Konesens Research, a Palm Coast, FL based international market research firm specializing in online data collection and panel development, and studies of social and economic interest.

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