Michael Barnett: Economic strategy giving mixed messages

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A culture change on why Auckland needs to grow is critical for unlocking development opportunities.

Auckland City. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Auckland City. Photo / Brett Phibbs

It was disappointing to see the continued confusion of who should be doing what when Auckland Council released Auckland's Economic Development Strategy recently.

It was a document that should have ignited hope of a better future among Aucklanders and a need and passion to participate, but instead reads as a document about what the council believes should happen and plans to do.

It should have reflected a working relationship with Auckland business and set out what that partnership would deliver and by when, but it did not.

The document referred to five platforms from which Auckland is going to become the world's most liveable city.

This is where some of the confusion began.

The first platform was about growing a business friendly and well-functioning city.

Quite frankly, being business friendly and easy to do business with should be an absolute fundamental for everything the council does and be a driver of the Auckland Plan, not confined to economic development.

A second platform referred to a target of becoming internationally connected and export driven, and again I ask, why is Auckland Council committing ratepayer funding to this target when we already have a national agency (NZTE) tasked with this role and a taxpayer budget of tens of millions of dollars.

A third target of enhancing investment in people to grow skills and a local workforce looks very similar to an objective held by a national agency and funded by the taxpayer.

For these and other objectives in the strategy, there seems to be a lack of understanding by Auckland Council that it is business that takes risk and provides jobs and growth, and if we are to achieve that objective, the council will need to partner with business and business agencies to deliver on its future economic aspirations.

The point: If the Economic Development Strategy had said it would partner with business to achieve its five priorities that would help address concerns that a lot of the proposed actions will end up simply duplicating initiatives already under way by others, both private sector and central government agencies.

Instead, the Economic Development Strategy feels like an experiment with the region instead of partnering with it.

The purpose of partnerships is to access networks. Auckland's business organisations have extensive nationwide and global networks available to contribute to achieve EDS priorities to develop an innovation hub of the Asia-Pacific and become internationally connected and export-driven.

There are other points worth noting:

•Economic development is about lifting the standard of living and economic health of all New Zealanders. It should occur at three levels - national, regional and local. From an Auckland perspective, our priority must be regional and local, but there must be an expectation of linkage with a national strategy. This linkage does not imply duplication of cost.

•Auckland as a region is small and has limited resources, so our initiatives will need to be targeted and they must be seen by the region as believable and achievable. This may mean some miss out, and some smaller sectors may need to cluster to give them scale, but whatever we do, we must be able to measure, manage and be honest about it.

•We need to remove some of the myths that exist - for example, the difference between economic development and business development is one the council could certainly work on which would hopefully see them out of competition with the private sector and partnering more with business and business agencies for some better outcomes.

Finally, the production of an ambitious strategy is admirable. But how often have we seen new leadership appointed, a new strategy put in place and no change in results.

What is also needed is a culture change - an understanding by the people of the region of why we need to grow, what we need to do, who are those that gain and what the long-term consequences for the people of Auckland will be.

If we can achieve this we will have more champions who will promote and support the strategy and want it to succeed.

Michael Barnett is chief executive of the Auckland Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry. See www.chamber.co.nz for more on Auckland's business-led future.

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