Boost and broaden your local economic strategy in 2017

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How we implemented a step-change in regional economic strategy and ambition in under 12 months, in collaboration with stakeholders, businesses and leading global experts….

During much of 2015 and 2016 I was privileged to help establish and manage the London Stansted Cambridge Corridor Growth Commission. The Growth Commission was a panel of independent experts set up by the London Stansted Cambridge Consortium to provide analysis and advice to raise the global economic potential of the London Stansted Cambridge Corridor and make recommendations on how to achieve transformational change. The Growth Commission was announced in June 2015, and made its final report and recommendations in July 2016.
This article presents the main lessons from this work, and a guide to other cities or regions considering an independent economic commission as a helpful way forward. More in-depth advice is provided on our company website.

A challenge we relished at My Local Economy

This project tested all of my consultancy and professional skills, and provided numerous intellectual and practical challenges. The end result was highly satisfying – a high quality programme of research and inquiry events, ending with high impact final report and significant buy-in from the Growth Commissioners and local stakeholders. The Growth Commission reported back to the London Stansted Cambridge Consortium – whose members wholly endorsed the report.
My Local Economy (the trading name for Athey Consulting Limited) significantly contributed to the success of the Growth Commission by helping to design its objectives and terms, briefing Growth Commissioners, designing and delivering the research programme, commissioning expert papers, commissioning speakers and presenters for 4 enquiry events, and facilitating workshops for the final recommendations and report. The final report was put together by My Local Economy.
It really helped to be involved at the beginning – at the stage where the terms of Growth Commission were being considered, and what the desired end result was from the point of view of the client.

Why did we need a Growth Commission?

As part of London, and with a successful tech-based economy in its own right, it has long been thought that the London – Stansted – Cambridge Corridor could achieve significant international success over the next thirty years. Up to 2015, there had been significant willingness to engage in debates and the development of collaborative ideas, but there was perhaps some feeling that more clarity on what could be prioritised and delivered at the Corridor-level.
Established as an independent initiative by the London Stansted Cambridge Consortium, the LSCC Growth Commission aimed to provide independent analysis and advice to raise the global economic potential of the London-Stansted-Cambridge Corridor and make recommendations on how to achieve transformational change.
Practically, this involved appointing the right Growth Commissioners, delivering a research programme do provide the necessary analysis and insights to inform priorities and choice, and debating these publicly with experts and stakeholders.
The Consortium and the Growth Commission are both initiatives that involve multiple partners and stakeholders, and are the product of the input of a range of views. We wanted to make the Growth Commission’s work accessible to all both in terms of inputting ideas and in being able to access the reports and outputs. So another big element of the project was to have very clearly written and incisive reports, with a significant presence on the internet and social media. We wanted engagement and feedback at all levels. We even pushed out some videos of the events and feedback.
An independent commission-style approach certainly has its uses if there is a need to fast-track a strategy development process, or to inject new thinking into a debate. It also brings a certain amount of profile. I think in this case, it also allowed a pragmatic focus on what was important without getting too bogged down in the process of developing an economic strategy.

The benefits of a ‘commission-style’ approach

In sum, the Growth Commission delivered a significant number of benefits and impacts:-

  1. SPEED. It fast-tracked the strategy development process in a way that was authoritative, inclusive and open
  2. DEPTH OF EXPERTISE. It got some renowned experts on board who might not have otherwise got involved with the issues, the area or the partnership. This is probably because it was focused, high profile and involved a limited time commitment (max 1 day per month / 12 months maximum)
  3. OPEN DEBATE AND EXCHANGE. That took in many views and debates, with the independence of the commission allowing it to probe issues which it thought were important, even if potentially controversial
  4. ADDED VALUE. That sought to add value at the Corridor level – i.e. recognised that a lot of local organisations do great work and we wouldn’t seek to unnecessarily duplicate that, but develop the ideas of what makes complete sense as a collaborative approach across many jurisdictions
  5. STRATEGIC. With a global and long-term outlook
  6. IMPACT. In a highly accessible and high impact series of reports and events
  7. STEP CHANGE. That resulted in a step-change in terms of ambitions and ideas for delivery
  8. IMPARTIAL CHANGE AGENDA. Its independence lent the process objectivity and authority, and also allowed London Stansted Cambridge Consortium and partners would adopt, adapt and amend these ideas as they were more fully thought out and developed
  9. CREATIVE. Because it was an independent commission – it generated ambitions, with pragmatic delivery ideas with the view that they partners would look at these and adapt, amend and build on them. There wasn’t the pressure to say something about every single issue or develop a shopping list 100 pages long – an approach that many strategies end up taking due to politics
  10. BUILDS BRIDGES. Some of the Growth Commissioners have become more engaged in the longer term – one became the new Chair of the partnership!

In our case, the final vision was very ambitious, but we set out some very practical and achievable objectives and delivery ideas for the next 5 years to move the Corridor forward. We focused on priorities where there was genuine added value from cross-jurisdictional working.

Where the independent ‘commission’ approach might be appropriate

Let’s not pretend that an independent economic commission is the way to go for every locality or every situation. It would be a mistake to implement this if there was no overwhelming reason, or no real backing or enthusiasm from local board members, politicians or stakeholders.
Independent commission-style approaches might be appropriate where:
You need a step change, some fresh views – lets face it, economic strategies can get dated or much of the content might not have moved beyond ambitions into delivery. You might want to get creative with delivery ideas, or bring in more private sector or professional views (for free).
You need to up your game and you need to do it now – commissions can fast track the debate, ideas generation and strategic direction that you might need sooner rather than later. With many economic strategies following a linear progression from evidence -> consultation -> drafting -> workshop -> final publication, this can often lose sight of pragmatic delivery options or ideas, or simply take too long (over 12 months).
You need to broaden out involvement, input and debate into the strategy and prioritisation process – its a way of getting consultation done in a more engaging and creative way. A high profile commission with exciting events will draw more people in, particularly businesses. You can make a commission completely public with public meetings, inquiries and examinations. You can have a commission website with open calls for comments and contributions.
Or you might want to address a focused question, using experts and debate to break open new insights and solutions. I could very much see an independent commission addressing a specific topic such as ‘getting our young people into more jobs with local employers’ or ‘step-change in local entrepreneurship’.
Finally – if you don’t have all the answers, you need to start bringing in people who can help. Lets face it, the economy is complex, dynamic, and there are multiple issues requiring multiple areas of experts and viewpoints. Its just not possible to deliver on this from a small department or team – why not broaden out the conversation and search for potential solutions?

Critical success factors

Have a clear idea of the outcomes you seek from the independent commission – this will lend focus to the terms of the commission, help recruit commissioners and contributors, and also help shape the work programme and events. You will get a lot more constructive responses and ideas if the questions you pose and issues you address are focused and relevant.
Recruit a good chair – they will be very involved in recruiting other commissioners, being the spokesperson, doing media interviews, and creating consensus amongst commissioners. They will be the authoritative voice who feeds back to stakeholders and politicians. They need to be authoritative and credible, but also approachable and a team player.
Get the commissioners you need to provide insight and also bring in views from a wider perspective. It helps if commissioners have some knowledge of one of the main areas of inquiry, and/or they have the intellectual ability to ask focused questions, absorb complex information and provide cutting insights.
You need a decent team behind the commission. The commissioners are there to provide intellectual input, debate and practice insights and to issue final recommendations and guidance. They will not be drafting agendas, reports, press releases, or organising events – you need a team to do this.
Be great at communication and write clear incisive reports. The better your reports are, the higher impact they will make, and the more widely read and referenced they will become. Commissioners and the overarching partnership or city government will want to be associated with top quality work too.
Great events management and orchestration the better you make the experience of the inquiry events for Growth Commissioners, presenters and the audience, the better the contribution and response, and reputation that will rub off on you.
Great people, great events, open debates and accurate insightful reports will set you up nicely to have a brilliant strategy that is pragmatic, based on facts and well-reasoned arguments, and has traction with stakeholders and the media.

How was it for us?

Of course, at My Local Economy we have a lot of experience in assisting and delivering economic development strategies, analysis and creative thinking and we got some fantastic endorsements from the Growth Commissioners and client. Here’s one of them below, and of course you can read more of them about here 🙂
“Dr Glenn Athey provided exceptional support to the London Stansted Cambridge Growth Commission during establishment and throughout its research, engagement and advocacy programme. He provided extensive and wide-ranging knowledge to the research programme and inquiry process, and his communication and writing skills contributed substantially to a high impact final report. Glenn worked very effectively with the Growth Commissioners and Stakeholders and cleverly addressed their priorities and needs.
“Throughout this programme of work and support, Glenn certainly proved he is amongst the best in class at providing consultancy advice, assistance and thought leadership for local and regional economies. Glenn combines a safe pair of hands, a thorough knowledge of economic development and a talent for developing ambitious and creative strategies. His writing and communications are highly impactful and media-friendly.”
Prof Greg Clark CBE, former chair LSCC

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