2020-07-20 A Private Sector Led Recovery

Krista Ross Commentary – July 2020 – Working Hard and Smarter: Time for the Private Sector to Lead 

The phrase “work smarter, not harder” has been in popular use since the 1930s and I think the concept that it communicates is useful and applicable to many aspects of our lives – including business. We can all benefit from learning and improving processes, but the economic crisis that the pandemic has catalyzed means that we need to do both. It’s not going to be enough to work smarter or work harder on their own.   

Chambers of commerce and other associations have been worker harder throughout the pandemic – our members and the business community generally look to us for information, guidance and advocacy. As the crisis got underway in mid-March, our efforts ramped up immediately and have not relented. Businesses had to put their focus on survival, and we tried to fill gaps for them as they arose. Many hours and days were spent dealing with the immediate needs of businesses that were facing challenges that no one expected, underscoring the need to collectively ‘work smarter’ – to be more intentional and more proactive. 

COVID-19 has forced all of us to take a step back and re-evaluate what’s most important, to prioritize and to think about the future. The business association community has been using this time to not only develop recovery plans, but to go beyond that and start to articulate a vision for the future. If there was ever an opportunity to do things differently in New Brunswick, this is it.  

In May and June, the Turning Point webinar and podcast series hosted experts, economists and thought leaders throughout the province. Through the eight-part series, we examined topics like the province’s fiscal reality, our economy and strategic sectors, but we also covered social enterprise, education and demographics. You can catch up on the series recordings now at turningpointnb.ca Throughout the summer we’ll be examining the themes and opportunities discussed through the sessions – the key will be figuring out how all the pieces fit together – or rather how they should fit together moving forward. Working smarter. 

We can’t think of business or economic policy as being a separate from the other big pillars of public life. A growing economy means that we can fund our social programs, our health care, and our education systems. It also means organic growth for jobs and wages. And the relationship is symbiotic – a healthier, better educated population is good for the economy. Available and affordable daycare is good for the economy. Helping underrepresenting groups break into the labour force is good for the economy. This will be difficult, but worthwhile and necessary. Working harder.  

The next step is to gather better local data and here I have a call to action. Last week, the Atlantic Chamber of Commerce launched Atlantic Impressions – a cloud-based community dedicated to gathering and sharing Atlantic Canadian’s views on key businesses issues. If you own a business, run a business, or work for business in Atlantic Canada – we need you to register and complete the two brief surveys per month focus on business in the region.  

This information will assist our advocacy efforts, policy direction and the feedback we provide directly governments—helping drive better outcomes for business, and therefore better outcomes for citizens and government. We need to know more detailed information about labour market issues, finance and taxation, regulations and red tape, innovation, government budgets, trade, export readiness and more. If there is enough local participation, we will be able to slice the data specifically to the Fredericton Region – this is important as we expect the recovery process to be highly localized and we need more acute information in which to base decisions and actions.  

To this end, municipalities and regions – including in Fredericton – have all been working on their local / regional recovery and growth plans. Economic development is a long-term investment with strategic areas of focus that build the foundation for growth. It also requires a near-term view that reacts to changing elements which often impact primary goals and objectives. To connect provincial and local efforts, “Regional Resiliency Teams” are being established through the province to complement ongoing response efforts of Public Health and the Emergency Measures Organization. These teams will provide a venue to connect communities to provincial recovery efforts and support communities and society in recovery planning and action by harnessing local understanding, strengths and resources with a focus on building more resilient and sustainable New Brunswick communities. 

Our priorities have all been impacted by the pandemic, which has exacerbated the chasm between our urgent short-term needs with those that are long-term and strategic in nature. Getting that balance right will be critical for our recovery to be robust and sustainable.  

All industries in the province will be affected in some way as a result of COVID-19. The impacts are not the same across industries (or companies) and the intensity will vary based on trade exposure to affected countries, supply chain exposure to trade, exposure to business environment risks and new government regulations resulting from the pandemic. As such, business recovery will vary within sectors and markets, and therefore the solutions to pull various businesses, sectors and industries must be tailored to the circumstances.  

The pandemic has forced all levels of government into varying degrees of financial stress. Municipalities are struggling, the province is currently forecasting a $300 million deficit, while the country is looking at more than $340 billion in new debt this year – and that’s likely to worsen before year is out. We can also expect a sharp decline in federal transfer payments, which represents more than one-third of our current budget.  

A significant portion of these debts are due to the immediate response from governments and the ongoing pandemic-related economic fallout. Indeed, government appropriately took a leading role in the initial emergency response to the pandemic.  

Now as we work our way through the recovery phase, the private sector must step up to lead. Governments are in a state of dramatically reduced fiscal capacity and they were not the source of sustainable growth and job creation even before the pandemic.  

Governments still have a role to play – they can create positive conditions for growth and break down barriers. They can also show leadership and big-picture thinking with projects like the proposed Maritime Iron plant in Belledune – scuttled at the NB Power-level – we have to look at opportunities more broadly than from a single perspective. The support shown by the province to Small Modular Reactors is a good example of the open-minded attitude required – which is also currently in a state of potential development – we need to do what it takes to bring projects of this nature to fruition – embrace the potential – not everything will work out, but we have to try harder – now more than ever.  

If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that government can be faster and more responsive than previously thought. In order to be most effective, they have to be willing to accept advice and guidance from business – especially if we can better articulate our needs through better information and a more comprehensive approach.  

Our organizational vision is Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity and that viewpoint has never been more relevant. It may seem like we’re further away from achieving that vision than we were in early March, but we have the tools in place to make it happen – but it has to be a collective, private-sector lead approach. Work smarter. Work harder. It will get better. 

Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’