One of the biggest challenges we hear from economic developers is figuring out how to talk about incentives to people outside the economic development community. These conversations are often either too simple (We have to offer incentives, or else! Incentives are always terrible!) or too complicated (deep in the weeds on modeling outputs, process issues, or tied up around technical definitions and timing topics) to satisfactorily answer basic policy questions.
Over the last year I’ve talked about incentives to many stakeholder groups – especially legislators and other state and local policymakers – and listened to how some of the best economic development leaders do so. Here are a few tips I have picked up.
Connect incentive use to strategy. We often emphasize that smart incentive use is not about completing a deal. Incentives should always be used to accomplish your economic development objectives. Articulate those objectives and explain how incentives are designed to support an overall strategy to improve economic opportunities in your community – not just win a deal.
Provide context. Standalone economic or fiscal impact numbers aren’t that meaningful. Provide some context that demonstrates the relative impact of a project you are describing. Budget information, economic data, annualized or per capita figures or other ratios that connect the new project to known values can be helpful.
Think about what your audience wants to know. Different audiences want different information. Many community members simply want basic data on what was done, with whom, how much it cost, and outcomes. A much smaller - but typically important - group of stakeholders will want detailed insight on process, verification of outcomes, and program evaluation. Be prepared to report information in multiple formats for multiple audiences.
Engage and be a good resource. Economic developers are usually the best resource for quality information on incentives because they have the data and expertise to make sense of complex program and project information. However, many are gun-shy because incentive queries often start with a negative or even accusatory tone. Nobody likes to participate in conversations like that.
Still, economic developers should consider engaging external audiences more actively if the goal is to improve the quality of the policy conversation around incentives. If incentives are only discussed when there is a problem or during formal testimony, we will be stuck where we are, with all parties distrustful and frustrated.