Blog Post

Insight: Economic Development Needs Better Questions

By: Max Backlund

Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.

When you read economic development strategies for fun you are rarely asked to dinner parties. I have been reading strategies for years now and can count on one finger the number of dinner parties I’ve been invited to. My years of reading strategic plans started at the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, where I worked to help communities with the competitive nature of the site selection process. Company decision-makers are typically data-driven as they consider potential sites, and communities must speak their language to remain competitive. After reading hundreds of strategic plans from across the state, I have one initial recommendation to help communities improve their strategic planning: engage with the data.

I use three key words to engage with data: velocity, direction, and context. Mike Flynn, the COO of EDCUtah, taught them to me, and now I share them here. These three words provide an essential guide to analyzing and communicating data. Velocity and direction provide insight into the factor of time, while context deals with geography. For example, a common mistake that economic developers make is to list a number in their strategic plan, like a 3% employment growth rate, without talking about the context for that number. Has your 3% growth rate increased or decreased year-over-year? Is your growth rate faster or slower than your neighbor counties? Where is employment growing in Utah? Where is it shrinking?

Velocity and direction are important because they unlock questions about the broader economic and demographic context. If you think of economic development as inherently competitive for job growth, then one example goal might be to address a community’s market share of employment. If we take employment growth as a proxy for business investment, then an increasing share of total state employment shows us where business investment is growing at an accelerated rate. We