Buyer beware

By Mark Lautman

Published 3/25/11


The economic development profession might have hit bottom this week.

One of the country’s premier economic development consulting firms, Angelou Economics    , got busted for submitting a strategic economic development plan to Lexington, Ky., that included passages cut and pasted verbatim from work the firm had done for previous clients.

The consultant was outed by a local entrepreneur, Ben Self, who did what few people ever do with these plans: He actually read it. After comparing it to other work done by Angelou, he posted a blog pointing out the blatant self-plagiarism. That sparked a local media firestorm that quickly went viral.

The Austin, Texas-based Angelou admitted the blunder, and at the request of Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, refunded the city the $75,000 it had spent on the “strategic plan.” The face-saving gesture wasn’t enough to blunt the public’s outrage or the humiliation and destruction of professional reputations.

Subsequent blog posts that demanded the offenders be charged with felony fraud ended early celebrations by competing firms, and sent many of them scrambling to check their own work for “boilerplating” and self-plagiarism.

“Boilerplating” is actually a widespread practice among economic development consultants. After all, good market intelligence and effective program approaches developed for one community often work for others.

Nonetheless, most of the work masquerading as strategic planning in the economic development business today is neither strategic nor planning, and very little of it can be followed up in any concrete way.

Unscrupulous consultants are only half the problem, though. Lazy community clients are equally to blame. There are some lessons here:

Do your own strategic planning. Strategic economic development plans should be mostly researched and written by the people ultimately responsible for their execution: local leaders. Turning your community’s strategic planning over to an out-of-state technical writer with no responsibility for its implementation and no stake in its success is just asking to be ripped off.

Find a planning process that turns your local leaders into economic development experts. Community leaders who work to become economic development experts themselves rarely get duped. Economic development is hard. Not only do you have to figure out what to do, you have to develop a good enough plan to convince everyone that economic development should be emphasized at the expense of other important community needs.

There is no official strategic planning process for taking a diverse group of community leaders through an analysis of their economic predicament, finding the best targets, crafting a strategy, writing a plan, then building, financing, staffing and managing an effective organization. Besides having the right leaders, the most important thing is choosing and following the right process. Take your time and get it right.

Hire consultants only if you know exactly what you need. There is a huge difference between the wholesale outsourcing of the writing of your community’s strategic plan and hiring a process expert or contracting for independent market research and analysis. There are five general areas of expertise critical to planning and executing an effective economic development strategy:

Community insight. This means people who understand the character, needs, ambitions, capacity and political will of the community. If you need outside consultants for this, you are in trouble.

Patterns in world commerce. You need people who understand how the world economy works and can anticipate pattern shifts in commerce and spot risks and opportunities.

Program process and best practices. You need people who know how to manage the strategic planning process, know the best practices of competing communities and can keep local leaders on task.

Marketing, sales and closers. You need people who understand how location decisions get made and have the expertise to market, sell and close deals.

Completion teams. You also need people who have the resources and the know-how to complete projects; source and train a work force; and design, build and finance facilities on budget and on time.

Sophisticated economic development groups seldom use consultants. Smaller, less experienced communities might need multiple outside experts to stay competitive and execute.

The idea that communities, by pure volition, can influence the pace, quality and design of their economies has been under siege lately. Who knows, we might look back at Self’s blog as the turning point where the profession began to regain its intellectual rigor and the street credentials we need to regain public support.

Until then, I suppose it’s still “buyer beware.”