Elected officials and community groups are demanding better data from economic development organizations on incentive use. But reporting on incentives is more difficult than releasing a tally of projects and dedicated dollars. Here are some ideas for improving communication on incentives.
A single omnibus report is not ideal. Reporting should reflect different types of information and recognize the needs of different audiences and timeframes. A simple framework might contain:
- Basic information on incentive agreements released quarterly or on a rolling basis and made available through a searchable online data portal.
- Summaries of program activity, accomplishments and costs provided every year in an annual report format and/or reported on a web site.
- Program evaluation reports released and designed to generate conversations with lawmakers and other stakeholders. Since outcomes may take several years to achieve, reports conducted every 3, 5, or even 10 years make sense for this purpose.
Creative presentation combined with stronger context and storytelling can make a tremendous difference in an audience’s ability to absorb complex information. Dashboards, infographics, videos and online tools will complement if not supplant the basic PDF report.
Effective reporting and communication provide context and descriptive information on incentive program use. Too many audits and reports skimp on the rationale behind incentive use, focusing just on the transactional details. Without context it is impossible to understand whether incentive use is a good economic development strategy or not.
Reporting that is defensive in tone or confrontational (depending on who is doing the reporting) is not helpful. The best reporting is designed both to inform and help improve incentive use. We recommend a collaborative approach that takes into account the legitimate interests of various stakeholders, including elected officials, while also connecting incentive policies to the broader goals the economic development organization is striving to achieve on behalf of the community.