Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What Do You Wish Your Elected Officials Knew About Economic Development?

This week's post is a guest blog from Christy McFarland, Program Director, Finance & Economic Development, Research & Innovation at the National League of Cities. She can be reached at mcfarland@nlc.org.

We at the National League of Cities are producing a guide for local elected officials based on a list of the “10 Things Local Elected Officials Should Know about Economic Development…and if you don’t you should ask.” This list is sort of call to arms about having informed local elected officials who can support and promote thoughtful economic development policies.
To be sure, we are not trying to turn local elected officials into professional economic developers, but to give them the tools and knowledge to be effective leaders and to build mutually-supportive relationships with their economic development staff. We started this conversation with economic development officials at IEDC’s recent conferences and would welcome your input as well. Have additions, subtractions, or comments about our list? Let us know! The “10 Things Local Elected Officials Should Know about Economic Development…and if you don’t you should ask”:

Informed and Strategic Leader

1. Your local economic strengths and weaknesses, including:
  • What are the major sources of jobs in my town?
  • What available sources of worker training are available in my city, like community colleges, and are they connected to the needs to my local business community?
  • What is the high school graduation rate? Drop-out rate?
  • Local unemployment?
  • Am I up to speed on changing economic conditions?
2. Your community’s economic development goals and vision, including:
  • Are goals and vision based on a “fad” or the realities of my community?
  • Is the economic development vision in sync with longer-term community values?
3. Your community’s strategy to attain these goals, including:
  • What are the tangible outcomes of our vision?
  • How can I be part of a “continuum” of leadership for economic development? (i.e. balancing longer-term nature of economic development with short-term political concerns)
4. How your community fit into the broader regional economy, including:
  • What does/could my community offer to enhance the region’s overall economic strength and environment?
  • What regional organizations or partnerships exist? Are we involved?
Policy Maker Who Can “Connect the Dots”

5. Other city activities that support or impede economic development, including:
  • How do transportation, housing, land use and other policies impact economic development? How do these all work together?
6. Your regulatory environment and budget, including:
  • Are we establishing the right conditions to create jobs?
  • How long does the permitting process take?
  • Does the budget support the expectations I have of my economic development team?
  • Do we offer tax incentives, and under what circumstances?
7. Who needs to be at the table to get the job done, including:
  • Who are the key city staff from various departments and outside organizations who work on these issues?
  • Do I talk to them?
  • What do/can they bring to the table to help achieve our economic development goals?
  • Are there communications barriers between stakeholders and what can I do to break them down?
Effective Communicator

8. The needs of your local business community, including:
  • How does my business community perceive local government?
  • How does my city monitor and respond to the needs of our local business community?
  • How do we celebrate and highlight the achievements of local businesses?
9. How to support your economic development staff and they can support you, including:
  • Am I in regular communication with my economic development staff?
  • Do I trust my staff and do they trust me?
  • Do I empower my staff to make decisions?
  • What type of leader do they need me to be in order to be most effective?
  • What information do I need from them in order to communicate to residents how we are addressing their needs?
10. A consistent message and brand about who we are, including:
  • How do I articulate our economic vision to my citizens?
  • Are all city staff and officials on the same page with the goals and are we delivering a consistent message/brand?


  1. Great idea. I think you have most of the major points covered, and I would emphasize the communication section. Elected officials should be honest with their economic developers about their expectations before they make hiring decisions. Talking about entrepreneurship, innovation, and programs like economic gardening is great. But if ultimately you will judge your economic developer's performance using simple criteria like jobs and tax base, then that expectation should be clearly established up front. Give that person a chance to evaluate how much room there will be for creativity in the position--and provide support to him or her if you've asked for creativity and new approaches. There is a reason that economic developers tend to have high rates of turnover in some parts of the country.

  2. I agree communication between elected officials and the economic developers should be clear. The goals of the elected officials for economic development should be mutual with the economic developer, if not, it will not work. Often times, local governments hire economic developers to focus on specific projects without understanding the entire picture -- What are the elements that make economic development work? You can revitalize a commercial district without establishing a strong relationship and trust with the businesses. This article is critical and NLC should try to make this topic into a discussion workshop at the NLC annual meetings.

  3. Thanks for your comments. In our discussions with economic development staff over the past few months, a recurring theme has been the mismatch between expectations of the electeds and staff, particularly in terms of economic development goals. In the current economy elected officials are being judged by the number of jobs they can create/save today, which may conflict with longer-term goals and efforts of economic development staff. Having a unified vision, strategic plan and communication is key!