Oh, To Be a Consultant!

Aileen MurrayI could barely listen to consultant Aileen Murray as she shared her Economic Development Strategy with CBRM council on Tuesday because I’d read the presentation as I drank my morning coffee and spent the next few hours in a slough of despond over having chosen the wrong career.

Why did I not become a consultant? Why do I spend my days trying to ferret out facts and understand the world around me when I could get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to stand at podiums offering municipal councilors piercing glimpses into the obvious like:

You need to work cooperatively with other levels of government.

You need to attract and retain new residents.

You need to make sure international students have places to live.

I could do this job, I know it.

I could conduct an extensive consultation process that included 129 resident responses to my questionnaire. I would admit this was a disappointing response in a municipality the size of CBRM, but I would not let the lack of citizen participation deter me.

I could tout CBRM’s improved position in Maclean’s Magazine’s 2021 list of Canada’s Best Communities (up from #407 to #66 in just five years!) but stay mum about the same magazine putting CBU dead last again (19th out of 19) in its 2022 rankings of “primarily undergraduate” Canadian universities and 46th out of 49 Canadian universities in terms of “reputation.” What do they know?

I could give concrete examples of things CBRM could do to improve its economic situation. “Identify key provincial initiatives the CBRM can support and benefit from,” I would say. “Contact the province [I’m not sure exactly how, whether by email or phone or by hanging around outside the legislature and buttonholing the premier as he leaves, but I’ll figure it out]. Say, ‘Hey! We’d like to take part please, how do we get involved in what you’re doing on those?” (That last is a direct quote from the presentation.)

I could have a vision for CBRM bordering on a hallucination and a mission that prioritizes the well-being of business over that of residents, because that’s the kind of community everyone longs to inhabit:

Slide from CBRM Forward economic development strategy presentation


I could set five goals and then provide a weirdly specific number of “strategic actions” to achieve them:


Slide from CBRM Forward economic development strategy presentation


I could give an example of a goal: “Grow the economic potential of CBRM’s strategic advantages in tourism,” I’d say, not entirely coherently.

Then I could give advice on achieving that goal: “Attract investment,” I’d say, “foster entrepreneurship and address workforce development,” I’d say. “D’uh,” I’d say.

I could suggest performance metrics, which the Cape Breton Partnership admitted earlier this year it did not have, none of which would actually attempt to measure economic development. Instead, I’d measure things like how much money was spent on economic development and the higher the number the better, regardless of outcomes.

When I was done, I could smile and the mayor would thank me for my wonderful presentation and my “very, very lovely way of presenting it,” after which I could return to Chatham, Ontario and forget all about the CBRM.


Fine print

In actual fact, I did listen to Murray and afterward I went back to see what my expectations for this economic development strategy were when it was announced in March 2021 and I realized that “low” would be an understatement:

Frankly, I’m actually not that concerned about the economic development strategy — it seems so obviously destined for that great filing cabinet in the sky, next to the Ivany report. (You can get a hint of what the finished report will look like from the slides, one of which lists “lack of proximity to Halifax” as a “potential barrier to growth.”)

(I am disappointed, I must admit, that Murray’s partner David Campbell didn’t show up for the presentation. I really wanted to get a look at that guy.)

I didn’t see the actual plan, though, until later in the day, when it was posted on the CBRM website, and skimming through it I realized there is more to being a consultant than saying obvious things—you have to write them too.

But I could do that, I could go into a town I didn’t know, read a bunch of potted histories about it, then spit them back in my introduction, helpfully informing lifelong CBRM residents that:

The CBRM has experienced significant economic upheaval over the last 20 to 30 years. Once commonly called Industrial Cape Breton due to its reputation as an energy and manufacturing powerhouse, the CBRM now has one of the lowest concentrations of mining and manufacturing employment among urban centres across the country.

I could make bold declarations like:

The CBRM Forward Economic Development Strategy is not focused on the past. It is focused on the future.

Although honestly, the temptation to draft a retroactive development strategy might prove too much for me.

I can read the national media:

In recent months, national media has featured stories of people moving to Cape Breton and entrepreneurs coming to the municipality to join the bio-economy startup cluster.

What I couldn’t do, though, is what appears to have been the chief task assigned these consultants, namely, state that the key to economic development is spending more money on economic development—a lot more, like somewhere between $468,470 and $1.87 million per year.

Money that would be funneled to the Cape Breton Partnership which, need I remind you, helped pay for this study.

Damn, and I was so close to a career change.