Local economic strategies: our top 10 tips and ideas

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At My Local Economy, we pride ourselves on assisting local organisations and stakeholders develop local economic strategies that directly reflect genuine local strengths, capabilities and opportunities. We’re different to other consultants in our field – and we tend to get clients who want to move forward in terms of tangible delivery tasks, and want new solutions for local economic challenges and opportunities. We’ve put together our top 10 of tips and ideas on how to put together your own transformative local economic strategy.

My Local Economy: 10 tips and ideas for Local Economic Strategies

#1 BREAK OUT OF THE LINEAR STRATEGY PROCESS – INVENT A PROCESS WHICH WILL DELIVER THE OUTCOMES YOU NEED

Many localities get themselves locked into very linear processes to create a strategy. They get a piece of research commissioned (an economic review), consult with a few people, do a workshop with board members or representatives, knock up a long shopping list of priorities (and sometimes there can be too many priorities), and create some kind of mission. Then the draft strategy gets pored over by many stakeholders which leads to more priorities being added, the mission statement often being revised to be more ‘acceptable’ to all. There’s sometimes a tendency to avoid identifying the practical means and resources for delivery. The end result can be unconvincing but difficult to question – who wouldn’t want 10% more skilled jobs and a massive increase in GDP?

We suggest devising a custom approach. It might mean asking a lot of questions such as – how did you progress with the previous strategy? (e.g. sometimes the response is that it sat on a shelf because it was undeliverable and not so relevant). Or – tell me about the best projects you have had funded recently (e.g. if they do have some great ones – they have some capability to stretch or evolve; if they don’t then they need some help taking their strategy into delivery mode).

#2 REALISE EARLY ON THAT TO BE EFFECTIVE AT DELIVERY, YOU NEED TO BE FOCUSED. AS WELL AS A STRATEGY, YOU WILL NEED SOME KIND OF DELIVERY PLAN OR PROSPECTUS

Let’s face it – many strategies are lucky if they get 50% implemented. There’s rarely the resources to do everything, and results often depend on a lot of different organisations and personalities pulling together. It helps if you have a delivery plan that springs from the strategy. Some strategic priorities might be easier to address than others, or have the budgets available and the general consensus that its a good idea. Other priorities may require more research or exploration, or the politics of persuasion and influencing need to be done before delivery can start. There’s nothing wrong with saying “we know this issue is critical and its a strategic priority, but you know what? we need to do a hell of a lot of work to understand how we best respond.” It is a lot better than pretending to know the answers but doing nothing.

#3 USE DATA AND ANALYSIS TO ANSWER THE ‘SO WHAT?’ QUESTIONS

We have been working as applied economists in local and regional economic development for 20 years now, and are still surprised that there are economic reviews and audits done of local communities which continue to present statistical tables in a bland and descriptive way. We are also surprised that many reviews are long past their sell-by date – some even using datasets only one or two years after the 2009 recession. Local economic analysis needs up to date statistics and information, cutting insights and must answer the ‘so what’ question if its to be any use in strategy development.

#4 USE CONSULTATIONS TO DEVELOP PROJECT AND DELIVERY IDEAS AS WELL AS GATHER VIEWS ON PRIORITIES

We find that stakeholders quite often know what needs to be done, and can suggest appropriate roles for public sector support. They can have a really deep insight into specific issues and sometimes have great project ideas. When we do delivery plans with clients, we get a lot of stimulating thoughts and ideas which we, as consultants can then creatively combine or develop into fundable projects or delivery. One of the big problems with what we all the “traditional linear approach” to strategy is that it can miss out opportunistic behaviours and actions – i.e. how the market and real world often works.

#5 TACKLE CHALLENGING ISSUES HEAD ON, BUT USE PLATFORMS THAT CAN BE IMPARTIAL AND BUILD CONFIDENCE

Sometimes there are very challenging issues, that it might be politically difficult to discuss. One way to move forward is to create vehicles for impartial or independent debate. Higher education institutions or independent commissions can be great ways of putting debate into a public arena, but with experts and stakeholders contributing constructive views. People and businesses love these kinds of debates. It is often easy to get sponsorship – whether in-kind as a venue and catering, or financial sponsorship. It also reflects well on you as the organisation responsible for local economic development as it clearly states “Hey folks, we’re all in this together. We really value input from everyone in the community. We’ve put together some very informed speakers for a debate about some critical issues. So you see, we are taking them very seriously.” We have written extensively about this here.

It is tempting to wait until have the “best strategy ever” – that has all the answers, links every portfolio, keeps everyone happy… But effective delivery requires pragmatism

#6 REVIEW CURRENT PERFORMANCE – WHAT ARE YOU DOING WELL?

There can be a tendency to move swiftly onto a new strategy without reflecting on what’s worked in the past, and what hasn’t? what has been learnt? what opportunities were missed that other nearby localities seem to have taken advantage of? as consultants we ask these questions from clients and local stakeholders. If certain aspects of the previous strategy weren’t delivered or progressed, we need to ask why? In the answers, lie the future solutions or the next evolution of strategy.

#7 LOOK FOR THE UNDERLYING CAPABILITIES AND DYNAMIC ASSETS IN A LOCAL ECONOMY AND ASK BUSINESSES IF THEY WERE LOOKING TO RELOCATE PREMISES – WHERE WOULD THEY CHOOSE AND WHY

Why do certain industries or businesses locate here? it might be an underlying capability such as workforce engineering skills, or IT skills, or having high quality and relatively affordable business premises and sites near major motorways. Its good to ask these questions, and also ask businesses if they were to relocate tomorrow, where would they go and why?

What is your organisation’s role on any given issue? is it ‘rowing’, ‘steering’, or ‘cheering’?

#8 ROWING, STEERING, OR CHEERING? THERE ARE DIFFERENT ROLES THAT LOCAL ORGANISATIONS CAN TAKE

At My Local Economy, we are adherents of Stuart Gulliver’s (the ex-Chief Executive of Glasgow Development Agency) “Rowing, Steering or Cheering” model of local and regional economic development roles. It is important to realise that your local organisation won’t necessarily be the best placed to lead and deliver every single aspect of a strategy. There are a number of roles –

  • Rowing (delivery): taking the lead, winning the resources, funding or delivering
  • Steering (influencing and shaping): helping to shape, fund and influence others who deliver to our aims
  • Cheering (advocacy): champion, cheerleader and advocate for others delivering to our aims

You also have to ask about how your resources can be deployed as a single organisation:

  • Additional/leverage: where they augment or add to other partner funding
  • Gap finance: where your organisation can fund activities that other funding sources will not (e.g. for tourism marketing)
  • Principal funds: where your organisation is the principal funder and is seeking for other sources of funding to pursue a project or activity

#9 ALWAYS PROVIDE SOME ‘BUDGET-LIGHT’ OPTIONS

Lets face it, communities are hard pressed for public spend right now. There are always things that can be done that involve relatively little budget or using existing resources in different ways. For example, if your local educational institutions don’t connect or cater for your local manufacturing firms – there should be a role for the local development organisation to bring them together. If you have got a redundant municipal or privately owned building – it might have such a great location it could be repurposed into something else. If you want some new business start-up space but don’t have the capital budgets to build a flexible incubator – a car park and some freight containers might do (e.g. boxpark). There might also be some interesting non-profit organisations who will invest if the location and conditions are right (e.g. Allia)

#10 FINALLY – MAKE IT YOUR STRATEGY, NOT THE CONSULTANTS

Strategies have worked best when we, as consultants, have provided some major insights and transformational ideas for local economies, and the client has then used this as a basis for further discussions and strategy development. We tend to give a range of priorities and delivery ideas which are both quick wins and require longer term development.

Some other things to remember

  • It is tempting to wait until have the “best strategy ever” – that has all the answers, links every portfolio, keeps everyone happy…
  • But effective delivery – only ever happens if focus on a few pragmatic projects or programmes
  • Pragmatism – deliver what you can now that will make a significant difference; start to prepare now for longer term options
  • If you want to be transformational – these are major undertakings and you can probably implement only 1 or 2 transformational programmes at any one time.

Need help with your local economic strategy? then contact Glenn Athey, Managing Director at My Local Economy.

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