Local government chief executives and senior officers should regard economic development as a key strategic role and ought to be doing much more to encourage more people to come up through the ranks in this area.
This is now a leadership and management imperative.
In my general experience as an economic development professional, and this is borne out in new research from the Institute of Economic Development, practitioners tasked with the delivery of critical agendas such as growth and regeneration are simply not being supported enough to do so.
This is because economic development is not a statutory function of local government. However, the implications of this are becoming more prevalent.
More and more early-career professionals on the ground are being thrown into roles in local authorities without necessarily having the required comprehension, knowledge and skills for being an effective economic development officer.
This is a complex challenge, of course. Economic development is such a broad sector and discipline that it can be hard to define. But when research like ours shows that 35% of economic development practitioners feel they lack general knowledge about the profession and are also concerned that they have insufficient local knowledge and skills needed to make a difference to their communities, we must listen.
In a climate of shrinking budgets, continually limited resources and the delivery of a critical yet non-statutory service, staff must not only be equipped with the appropriate tools to deliver economic development but also have confidence their colleagues and those partners they rely on are equally well equipped.
There are massive gaps out there. We should be in no doubt the recognition of a lack of knowledge and skills is a major issue for the effectiveness and success of economic development interventions.
But the challenges facing economic development practitioners run more deeply than knowledge and skills. Our research found resourcing, especially in terms of department capacity, was cited as the single biggest concern by over a quarter of respondents. Others reported challenges in relation to the political environment, policy, funding, organisational culture and their ability to support businesses.
All these issues could be interpreted as a consequence of economic development still being a non-statutory function of local government; perhaps it’s time that it did become statutory.
Suzanne Malcolm, director, Institute of Economic Development