Many municipalities struggle with the same economic development challenges, especially if they are located in a similar geographic area. Although it offers many benefits, regional economic cooperation is not always easy to start or sell to stakeholders. So what is the best way to get the ball rolling? First let's take a brief look at some of the benefits and challenges.
First of all, regional economic cooperation offers the following major economic benefits:
- As a whole, there is more to sell - When municipalities work cooperatively, each one brings its own assets and strengths to the table. As such, the whole package offered to outsiders is larger, more varied, and increasingly attractive than would be the package offered by a single municipality working alone. It is also believed that businesses and consumers consider the region first before an actual municipality when making location or investment decisions - another reason to sell the region as a whole.
- Sharing resources - By pooling resources (financial, human, etc.), cooperating municipalities can expand their economic development initiatives. The previously limited resources of the municipality when acting alone are now increased, allowing them to pursue larger and higher impact initiatives, and in markets not previously accessible.
- Economies of scale - In many situations, it is not efficient for each municipality in a given region to deliver all of its own economic development services (leading to unnecessary duplication of efforts). By cooperating regionally, more can be done with the existing inputs.
- Networking potential - By working through an expanded network, you will become much more aware of opportunities, learn from other people's experiences, better understand the varying interests in your region, and allow you to better align your efforts with those of other municipalities.
However, regional economic cooperation does also have some challenges. These include:
- Politics - Political (and sometimes organizational) leadership structures often impede cooperation. By defining an undeniable mutual benefit from cooperation, politics can be overcome.
- A culture of independence and self-sufficiency - Many organizations feel that they can do things best on their own of that help from others is not required; however, by working together greater results can be achieved by all parties.
- Resistance to change/fear of failure - In order to combat the resistance to working with former competing regional partners, it is important to define a clear and compelling benefits-based call to action in order to win them over.
- Focusing on the wrong things - The focus of the cooperation should be on bettering the region as a whole, not on narrow or limiting goals such as developing real estate or supporting businesses. It is also important that it be recognized that prosperity for the region is less likely to be achieved through traditional economic development approaches and that innovative, outside-the-box thinking is required.
So, where does one start when considering regional economic cooperation? Here are some tips to get you on your way:
- Start small - Often the trust does not exist within a region to start with a large project such as a regional strategic plan. Start with a project that has broad support, and use that project to open the lines of communication and to build trust.
- Define your region - This is the tough part, and there is no singular right answer. In order for regional cooperation to be effective however, it is essential that the involved municipalities are faced with similar challenges and opportunities. In addition, the defined region must be geographically reasonable, and the local leaders must be willing.
- Set-up the framework - Identify a high-profile champion to lead. Make the decision-making process and expectations clear to all from the start.
- Ensure effective leadership - The leadership should have vision and influence. In addition, they should be able to facilitate meetings, promote and lead discussions, mediate and mitigate conflicts, create a neutral playing field, organize ideas, keep participants informed and engaged, keep the discussion relevant, and push the collective effort towards resolution.
- Communicate the process widely - From the beginning, ensure the process is transparent and communicated to both stakeholders and the public. Involve everyone early and often, ensure updates are communicated regularly.
Ultimately, the key to regional economic cooperation is to start talking - with colleagues, counterparts in other municipalities, and key stakeholders. Build the excitement and the support for cooperation. And once momentum is created, ensure it is maintained. Make regional economic cooperation a priority long-term initiative - and stick to it.