Top 10 Things I learned from Leading Economic Growth

Guest blog written by Robert Trewartha 

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in July 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

 To be honest, I was “volun-told” into this course by the Mayor. I had joined her for the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in 2019-20 and learned a great deal. This opportunity came along at a time when we were in the height of managing the COVID-19 pandemic in our City. I was not sure I wanted to take on school on top of my 60+ hour work weeks, but I am quite glad that I did. While I am not an economist by training, I found that I was able to keep up and even more, I learned great deal. 

As part of my role, I was asked to help author our City’s economic recovery framework – the foundational document of our recovery efforts for the next 2 years. Much of what I have learned in this course, the revelations, and the self-exploration helped me to write a more thorough, and I hope more effective document. Ideas such as “inclusive growth” were not ones we had explored deeply at the City level before. 

I am a political staffer and I like 10 point plans and lists. So, I thought I would organize what I have learned from this course into a Top 10 list. 

The Top 10 things I have learned from Leading Economic Growth: 

10. Our global economy is built on weak foundations: Our local, subnational, national, and global economies are built on shaky if not crumbling foundations. This has been laid bare during the COVID-19 crisis. Markets no longer match the economic realities of billions of people on this planet as wealth continues to concentrate in the hands of a few. This negatively affects economic growth, productivity, and the health and well-being of the majority of us living on Earth. 

9. The invisible hand is tied behind our back: the invisible hand of the market is not functioning the way it is supposed to because it seems to have been purposefully sidelined in the interests of a few. Our capitalist marketplace is not functioning properly, because if it were, growth would be more equitably distributed and capital would not be so concentrated. Billionaires should not be tolerated in a capitalist system. There are many vowels in the alphabet that were used to create this wealth, but very little of it is given back to the system that helped build it in the first place. 

8. “This is the way we have always done it” is perhaps the most destructive sentence we can use. It holds us back from realizing our growth potential and maintains the status quo. Only through a concerted effort that aims to do things differently will we be able to properly tackle our growth problems (i.e. Sri Lankan or Singaporean examples). 

7. Defining the problem is critical: Too often we believe we know what the problem is (i.e. corruption) and we decide that we are going to tackle said problem. But too often we have not done the hard work needed to define the problem and get to the root causes, which must first be addressed before the problem can be properly addressed. 

6. The binding constraint is elusive: Like challenge of defining the growth problem, understanding what the binding constraint is can be equally as challenging, but just as important. Again, too often we think we know what the binding constraint based on what we can see before us, but until we fully delve into the data and talk to those involved, we will not know. And even if it is isolated, the binding constraint is not always easy to address, due to a myriad factors, including #8 on this list and political priorities. 

5. Use consultants sparingly: Consultants can be useful, but they can also throttle the development of institutional “muscle” and capacity that if developed properly, can far outlast the retainer of the consultant and can continue to produce change and results well into the future. I am intrigued by the PDIA method that builds capacity within an organization, as well as political buy-in. 

4. Best practices are not always best: A cookie cutter approach to growth and economic development does not always produce the best results. While a best practice may work in one jurisdiction, it is not always easily replicated in others. Like consultants, it is best to be wary of best practices as a panacea. They can be useful as a guide and a marker against which to judge your progress and results. 

3. Planting more trees makes it easier for monkeys to jump: Being from Canada, we are blessed with an abundance of natural resources, but also with a diverse array of current and potential exports. As I said in Week 2, I believe we are punching well below our weight for a variety of reasons. Through PDIA and exploratory work, including investment attraction agencies, you can plant more trees and breed more monkeys. It takes a concerted effort that properly identifies the growth problem, as well as the binding constraints, and then actively seeks out new investors and talent. The Singaporean “miracle” was especially instructive in this regard. 

2. Strong leaders are only part of the story: While a strong leader may be important to for public support and a focal point around which to rally, they alone cannot execute an entire growth strategy on their own. No one has that much time, bandwidth, skill or expertise. Ruling with an “iron fist,” does not allow others to take the lead, propose ideas, and develop as leaders. A more decentralized multi-agent leadership model is far more effective in developing a growth strategy than a single leader. 

1. Strong growth is inclusive growth: The story of “us” must include of all of us. Our growth must leave no one behind. We measure growth in terms of GDP and job creation, but we do not often look at the impact on real people, especially the vulnerable, women, visible minorties and the disabled. Macro economic evaluations of growth may show that an economy is “healthy,” but they do not tell the entire picture. Growth that is inclusive is growth that empowers more people to be more productive. 

Profit cannot be our only measurement for success; productivity is incredibly important as well. 

As we head into the recovery from COVID-19, I will be using the PDIA approach to address some of our City’s fundamental growth problems. In fact, in the past week, I have raised some of the ideas learned in this course, including PDIA and inclusive growth with our Director of Economic Development. We will be developing a plan of action that involves many agents both within our City government, as well as in other levels of government and across the community. 

The big challenge we will face is garnering political buy-in for our plans, as they are unlike anything we have attempted before. I suppose this one element that I hoped the course would touch on more: political influence and acceptance. Perhaps I see the world differently from my economic development counterparts as I am a political staff person, but I believe that we often underestimate the significant role that politics plays in not only providing licence to ideas and approaches, but also in championing them. The Green New Deal is a wonderful document that seems like a “no brainer,” until it is put on the floor of a legislature for debate. I know there are limits that I am just not allowed to test at this time due to the political realities in my community and my country (we’re spending $12B to build a pipeline to carry crude to a marketplace that increasingly does not want to buy crude). This course might benefit from some discussion of how to influence people at a political level to advance a novel growth strategy. 

Overall, I found this course incredibly worthwhile, eye-opening, thought-provoking, and engaging. I enjoyed the weekly lectures and I actually relished my weekly assignments. I thoroughly enjoyed my Thursday evening meetings with Peer Group 22; in fact, we have agreed to keep meeting monthly outside of this course. If given the opportunity, I would definitely take another course like this one. 

My sincere thanks for your time in reading and grading my weekly submissions. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours. 

To learn more about Leading Economic Growth (LEG) watch the faculty video, and visit the course website.

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