Almost monthly there’s a news report about an elected board being out of step with one of its appointed boards. Most recently the complaint was that a county board of commissioners had little accountability over its Economic Development Commission’s (EDC) activities and finances. Even though elected officials serve as members of the EDC board, communication back to the elected officials and public from the EDC is incomplete and limited. The media and public have called foul; local elected officials, EDC board members and professionals are frustrated and quick to blame each another for the conflict. Similar situations occur in communities across NC on a regular basis. Why does this happen and what can you do about it?
Generally, problems like the one described here result from a lack of clarity about how elected and appointed boards will jointly manage responsibility, communication and accountability for economic development. NC’s city and county elected boards may legally establish a variety of advisory boards, commissions, and committees. Some of these advisory boards, once established, have policy or rule making authority. Other committees are creatures of the local government and are established to advise local elected officials and professional staff (for more on different types of citizen advisory committees, click here). For simplicity’s sake, in this post I refer to all of these groups as “economic development advisory boards.”
Here are seven strategies that can improve how your economic development advisory board works with your elected board:
Understand the Structure. When cities and counties create economic development advisory boards they have multiple options, ranging from a completely freestanding nonprofit organization with an independent board, to a department within local government overseen by a city or county manager and local elected officials (learn more about options for structuring economic development advisory boards here). Along this spectrum lies a variety of arrangements where the economic development advisory board and the city or county share oversight, responsibility and accountability for economic development. Depending upon how the city or county structures its economic development advisory board, the scope of authority, responsibilities and the ability to adopt and pursue specific policies will vary.
Agree on purpose. Often problems arise because the city or county independently determines the purpose of the advisory board without having input from key stakeholders about their goals. A local government may, for instance, want its economic development advisory board to focus on rebuilding jobs in a particular sector while the economic development advisory board members themselves are interested in expanding alternative strategies. Without agreement from the outset on the purposes of the economic development advisory board, controversy and conflict are inevitable.
Engage representative partners. A significant challenge for local governments is finding people to serve on local advisory boards (click here for more on this issue). Volunteer board members interested in economic development are more likely to participate in the economic development advisory board’s work than are volunteers who have other interests. Elected officials and managers involved in recruiting volunteers should have a consistent and clear message about the economic development advisory board’s purpose and how it helps the city or county accomplish broader community goals.
Orient advisory board members to their roles. Few cities or counties have formal orientation programs for economic development advisory board members. To make sure new members understand the committee’s purpose and responsibilities they need to receive an orientation to the advisory committee. Orientation sessions can be offered annually, quarterly, or on an individual basis. The key is to make sure that members appointed during the year are quickly made aware of their roles and responsibilities. (Here is an example of an economic development advisory board’s orientation manual.)
Set specific and mutual expectations. Once members are seated, it is helpful to create a set of common expectations that the economic development advisory committee and the elected board agree to. Mutually crafted expectations enable all participants to articulate their interests and agree on what and how priorities will be met (For more on mutual accountability, click here).
Define standards for performance. Even if both parties agree on what they want to accomplish, they may have different ideas of what a quality outcome looks like. In addition to saying what we agree to do, it is important to agree on how and how often the results will be measured. (For more on Economic Development Performance measures click here.)
Clarify consequences and remedies. It is much easier to discuss how the groups will handle outcomes in advance than figure out what do after a crisis occurs. In an orientation session, participants can come up with alternative options for what should happen if expectations are not met, met or exceeded. The economic development advisory committee should also clarify who has the authority to decide what the consequences will be and whether expectations can be revised.
Take a look at the structure and purpose of your economic development advisory board. How clear are their purposes? Are expectations current and mutually understood? If not, this may be a good year for getting agreements on how to improve communication and accountability between your elected officials and your economic development advisory board.