Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? Consultant Influence on Local Economic Development Policy in Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? Consultant Influence on Local Economic Development Policy in Canada

Article excerpt


In an era of global economic instability, it is not at all surprising that economic development has become an important item on the political agendas of all levels of government. In advanced political-economic markets, economic development has transcended being a political issue addressed during election season, and instead has become one that requires both day-to-day attention and long-term strategy. As noted by many administrators and academics, this has become particularly prescient for cities as spatial changes to political power and economic responsibility, and the restructuring of local and global economies, have forced cities to become increasingly responsible for crafting their economic destiny. It is now vital that cities develop what Clark and Moonen (2014) describe as "fluency" in local economic development policymaking. For cities, therefore, it is important to know what form (or "language") this economic development fluency is taking, and which stakeholders facilitate this change in orientation and strategy.

Historically, local governments have had limited economic fluency and have been reluctant to develop and implement economic development policy that adequately addresses emerging challenges. Such challenges include economic restructuring, declining manufacturing and tax bases, fiscal shortages, the dramatic increase in immigration and its implication for the workforce, the rise of a highly knowledge-based workforce, and the stiff competition from new markets in the global economy (Arku 2015; Cleave, Arku and Chatwin 2017a; Osgood et al. 2012; Rubin 1988). However, in recent years the political-economic climate for cities has forced them to confront how they approach economic development. A key outcome in this change in approach has been the adoption of formal written economic development policies, which strategically outline the cities approach to economic development. (1)

Despite high rates of adoption, there remain significant questions about both the creation and the content of the documents. In a recent study, Cleave, Arku, and Chatwin (2017a) comprehensively examined the economic development strategies that were codified by local governments in policy documents based on city size, and expressing a lingering concern over the role of consultants in influencing policy. Specifically, these concerns are: whether the external agents develop economic policy that is tailored for individual cities or represents broader, "cookie-cutter" policy solutions; and whether the use of the same consultant firms facilitates policy migration and policy homogenization. This article, therefore, takes a different tack from Cleave, Arku, and Chatwin (2017a) and considers the influence of consultants on local economic development policy.

Consultants have been acknowledged to having an increasingly important role in local government decision-making and policymaking in Canada and other countries with advanced economies (Craft and Wilder 2015; Howlett and Migone 2013; McCann and Ward 2012; Momani and Khirfan 2013; Perl and White 2002; Vaitsman et al. 2013). However, the increased use of consultants has been critiqued as privileging "fast-policy" solutions (Creplet et al. 2001), creating a homogenization of policies amongst municipalities (McCann and Ward 2012; Peck 2014), as well as creating poorly fitting policies due to a lack of in-depth local knowledge (Cleave, Arku, and Chatwin 2017b). For cities looking to utilize consultants in the creation of their local economic development policy, these concerns raise a bevy of issues. In an increasingly competitive global environment for mobile and scarce economic resources, economic development strategies have to be robust, unique, and leverage local assets.

To accomplish the task of both furthering research into local economic development strategies, as well as identifying the role that consultants play in shaping them, this article asks: are there substantive differences between economic development strategies developed by cities and economic development strategies developed by private consultants for cities? …

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