Big hire, unclear mission - The Orca

Big hire, unclear mission

Rob Shaw 2

“A consultant to help consult during a period of parallel consultation” – Rob Shaw on the NDP’s splashy new hire, and zeal for process over measurable results.

The BC NDP government has long prided itself for its focus on “consultation” before making decisions.

It has now taken that to a whole new level with the announcement it has hired a renowned London-based professor to “advise on the future of the economy” this summer while it simultaneously conducts its own “public engagement” into a new economic plan.

So, basically, a consultant to help consult during a period of parallel consultation.

University College London professor Mariana Mazzucato, who heads the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, said according to her analysis B.C.’s rate of economic growth is solid.

“But that’s not enough,” she said.

“Even just before the financial crisis, if you just looked at those static indicators, it looked like many economies were doing just fine, but we know that actually building more inclusive economy, a sustainable economy, an investment driven, innovation led, economy, and where that innovation actually leads to a more capable state, a more capable private sector, and especially more dynamic public-private partnership, that just really requires a new design.”

It’s not entirely clear what that means.

It does, however, sound cutting-edge, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons Economic Recovery Minister Ravi Kahlon hired her and her six-person team at a cost of $350,000 on contract until March 2022.

Mazzucato’s credentials appear impeccable. She is as close to a rock star as an economist can get, having advised countries across Europe, the World Health Organization and the United Nations.

She’s also an author, with a series of TED Talks under her belt, and public endorsements from people like Pope Francis.

Mazzucato said she intends to bring a “mission-oriented, purpose-oriented, approach to economic growth” including “co-creation, co-shaping of markets, co-shaping of the economy.”

“So what that means, for example, with industrial strategy, is that instead of making a list of kind of key sectors, and, of course, your own sectors that are really important are oil and gas, mining, agriculture, also digital technologies, instead of looking at those sectors as a static list of kind of top competitive sectors to finance, it’s really the reverse,” she said.

“The question is what are the problems? What are the problems around climate change? What are the problems around inequality? What are the problems around gender parity? And how can we actually get all the different sectors, whether we’re talking about transport, construction, minerals and some natural resources like mining, but also the roll of AI, to, together, collaborate to solve the problems of our time.”

Er, okay.

Mazzucato cited B.C.’s new $500 InBC innovation fund, which is supposed to act as venture capital for B.C. projects that are in the public interest yet may find difficulty attracting investors that are traditionally only interested in high financial returns.

“That’s not enough,” she said.

“It’s not enough to have a public fund providing patient finance, as important as that is, unless it also a mission-oriented public fund so that we’re providing patient long-term finance to those actors and sectors in the economy that are willing to work with the government on actually achieving these goals.

“So that means, again, designing a fund that is actually geared to actually caring about the problems out there and getting as many different sectors and types of actors involved in providing that patient long-term finance.”

Again, sounds great – assuming you even understand it.

Still, it’s hard to figure out exactly what British Columbia has hired her to do. Sit in on meetings, lead some workshops and provide advice to Kahlon, presumably.

Kahlon has enough credibility and political capital to carry the hiring of Mazzucato, even if her deliverables are so far murky at best.

But he’ll burn through that goodwill quickly if her final report (assuming she produces one) doesn’t contain useful advice that the public can understand and the government can act upon.

As much as the BC NDP likes to consult with experts, it has a mixed track record of actually acting upon the advice it gets back.

It’s still stumbling through the difficult recommendations made by an expert panel on old growth forests, it entirely rejected the major recommendations of an expert panel on housing affordability this month and it similarly rejected some of the recommendations an expert panel made on tax reform in 2018.

All of this is cautionary context for Mazzucato’s contract.

She may be uniquely qualified to advise on B.C.’s economic recovery, and she may even provide excellent advice. Whether the government listens, however, will be another story.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.