Whole-of-council approach to economic development

By Professor Lee Pugalis, University of Technology Sydney

Economic development may not be a statutory local government undertaking, but economic factors and considerations inform day-to-day council activities as well as longer-term plans and objectives.
Moreover, it is broadly recognised that local government is an important actor in the local and regional economic development space.

The University of Technology Sydney’s Centre for Local Government (UTS:CLG)’s recent project examines the diverse roles and engagement of councils in the leadership, organisation, delivery and promotion of local and regional economic development in twenty-first century Australia.

Economic development is a crosscutting activity, which elicits different interpretations depending on which actor or agency one is speaking to.

Our research draws attention to the fuzziness of economic development – demonstrating how interpretations can enable and constrain practice.

As one research participant observed, “From a council’s point of view, local economic development refers to anything that they can do to improve or expand their economy.”

Such an expansive or holistic interpretation of economic development rightly identifies the prominent role of local government in economic development.

In addition, a holistic interpretation that is focussed on improving wellbeing and quality of life points to the importance of a whole-of-council approach.

Within each council, multiple interpretations of economic development coexist – some are complementary whereas others are contradictory.

A whole-of-council approach, which recognises the cross-portfolio nature of economic development, is starting to gain traction.
Steps to taking a whole-of-council approach might include the following:

1. Develop a shared understanding of economic development: start an ongoing conversation about the purpose of economic development, engaging widely both internally and externally.

2. Articulate the council’s position on economic development: publish and disseminate the council’s cross-portfolio view of economic development and what roles they intend to perform.

3. Produce an economic strategy: establish key priorities and the role of different departments in implementing the strategy, with a particular focus on reconciling competing objectives through complementary activities.

Taking a step further, which would build upon the establishment of a whole-of-council approach to economic development, councils are encouraged to position themselves at the heart of a whole-of-place approach to economic development. A whole-of-place approach would not only seek to involve all three tiers of government, but would also seek to involve all sectors of society.