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Challenges to using evidence in local economic development  

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In this guest blog, Justin Brown, Chair of the Chief Economic Development Officers Society (CEDOS) and member of our User Panel, responds to the recent report from Centre for Cities L.A. Evidential: improving evidence use in local economic policy making and reflects on what this means for local government. 

I was delighted and fascinated in equal measure to read the new Centre for Cities report on the use of evidence in economic development.

To start, let me explain about my delight. As chairman of CEDOS a couple of years ago I worked with members of our society, and with our consultant Rob Wadsworth from S4W, on a report about the changing skills needs of economic development officers. The report, which can be found on our website, offers a challenge for our profession to respond to the changing economic environment – understanding how economies work in a post Covid environment and developing the tools to help businesses and communities to respond to that new environment. We felt that the report would guide the training programmes that we organise for our departments and that it would be an aid to targeting our recruitment practices. Please do go to our website and take a read. 

Jasbhir Jas at the Local Government Association agreed that it was a useful report, and the LGA invested in a deeper piece of work by Shared Intelligence about skills needs in the sector, using the CEDOS report as its starting point. That development proved that our report was valuable and that the insight from our very experienced members could shape things for the future. 

However, I was equally delighted when Centre for Cities got in touch to tell us that the CEDOS report is part of the background information for the report on using evidence. The relationship between evidence and economic development is a complicated one – just think about the difference between the production of detailed European funding operational programmes and the more recent allocation of Future High Street Fund monies. Pages and pages of data on the one hand, rapid decisions and the delegation of funding on the other. As economic development professionals we have to be able to work in both environments.

Anyway, that is enough about my delight.  Let me explain about why I’m fascinated with the new report. 

Firstly, LA Evidential talks about incentives, and particularly the incentives that come from central government. I agree that these are an important pillar of economic development. But our work at CEDOS also explored the role of entrepreneurship – how do we help those business leaders who will invest in an area to do so as effectively as possible? How do we achieve greatest economic benefit to an area whilst recognising that the investor has their own motivation and bottom line requirements? I can see the need for evidence which is new, takes a different perspective, and has a deep understanding of the challenges of a shifting economy. If we can build that evidence, which inevitably will be at a very local level, then we can use the evidence to help to achieve significant benefit from investment. A while ago we debated inward investment at CEDOS, and particularly that most areas claim to have the same attractive strengths to investors… what sets any investment proposition apart is the quality of the people who work with the investor and the decisions that they can support/take. This new report has made me think carefully about the type of evidence that we need to use to support those investors.

Secondly, the report talks about the pillar of capacity. I agree that this is essential. Often when we think about economic evidence our mind immediately jumps to higher education and to consultancy. Both of these are valuable tools for the economic development professional. But it is important to remember our own skills, abilities, and knowledge as economic development professionals and that we work in complex organisations called local authorities which collate evidence in everything they do -interactions with politicians and the public, data to inform health and education strategies, performance data to support our scrutiny processes. We hold a lot of evidence – the capacity challenge that we face isn’t about getting hold of the evidence, it’s about collating it and using it effectively. This report from Centre for Cities makes it clear to us that we need to use evidence more effectively, but it also hints at the strength that we have to augment existing evidence and to present it in a way which informs decisions.

I’ve enjoyed the challenge of this report – as a member of What Works Growth User Panel, we have reflected on many of these barriers when discussing their work around evidence and evaluation. Certainly in our CEDOS meetings we will be testing how we assemble and use evidence to make the case for our economic development sector.