Suzanne Malcolm is a Director of the Institute of Economic Development.
Many economic development practitioners say 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.
This is the key finding of new research from the Institute of Economic Development (IED), the UK’s leading independent professional body for economic development and regeneration practitioners.
In our survey of practitioner challenges amongst local government professionals, resourcing was cited as the single biggest concern by over a quarter of respondents and others reported challenges in relation to the political environment, policy, funding, organisational culture and their ability to support businesses.
However, more than a third of respondents (35 per cent) identified gaps in their local knowledge and skills and general knowledge of economic development as the biggest barrier to effective practice.
The apparent lack of general knowledge about economic development can, in part, be explained by many individuals being new to the profession and an acknowledgement of the learning required on an individual basis.
But it is also a symptom of economic development being a non-statutory function of local government, so for those professionals working ‘on the ground’ in our sector many are often thrown into roles without necessarily having the understanding of what makes a good economic development officer.
The issue around local knowledge and skills, particularly around local initiatives and funding programmes, is more surprising. This suggests the need for improved communication at a local level.
Respondents reported that a lack of formal learning and knowledge sharing with peers creates further barriers to gaining sufficient knowledge. However, 46 per cent said that professional development was ‘very important’ to them and a further 37 per cent said it was ‘somewhat important’.
In a climate of shrinking budgets, continually limited resources and the delivery of an arguably critical but non-statutory service, staff must not only be equipped with the appropriate tools to deliver economic development but must also have confidence that their colleagues and those partners they rely on are equally well equipped.
This recognition of a lack of knowledge and skills is a major issue for the effectiveness and success of economic development interventions.
The IED’s Economic Development Skills and Demand survey, published last November, also highlighted issues around training and development not always being provided due to lack of budget and called for this to be “higher up the priority list”.
On the back of this latest research, which also found that respondents are particularly keen to better understand alternative funding models, inclusive growth, the impact of Brexit and place competitiveness, the IED has committed to developing new bespoke training opportunities.
So aligned to our flagship Excellence in Economic Development standard, which is available to public and private sector organisations, we are creating a professional development offering for economic development practitioners.
We would welcome approaches from organisations that want to get involved in sharing their training needs for us to respond to, or to work with us to create effective training programmes.
Finally, there is undoubtedly a bigger picture here for the economic development profession. That economic development remains a non-statutory function of local government in England is not helpful to achieving successful localism and devolution and improving our prosperity, productivity and competitiveness.
This is something we urgently need to address and the IED will be addressing over the next 12 months.