Economic Development News & Insight


The Higher ED Blog: Five ways to improve your performance measurement

Jamie Vann Struth / August 15, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: Five ways to improve your performance measurement

Jamie Vann Struth will be leading two sessions at our Performance Measurement in Economic Development seminar, coming up on September 19-20 in Halifax, NS. A series of speakers introduce the foundations of performance measurement, data collection, and analysis, and present case studies from large and small communities.

Performance measurement in economic development is really hard.

Which is no surprise to anyone who has spent time working in the field.

Let’s say you have a downtown revitalization program that you think is making a real difference. But is the recent growth actually due to a stronger regional economy, or the completion of a nearby housing project, or the trend for young workers to want to be downtown? The answer is likely a combination of all of these factors, which makes it tough to figure out what difference your program really made.

Access to timely, accurate and detailed data is a whole other challenge. But funders want proof, Councils and Boards want accountability and the public wants results.

The fact is, there is more that can be done even within the limited realm of data availability in Canada. You might never “prove” your program causes a specific result, but the effective use of data can still provide deeper insight into what is happening and increase confidence in the results.

Here are five principles for effective use of data in performance measurement:

Put things in context

This is the most important lesson of all and applies to all kinds of different scenarios. For instance, here’s a simple statement:

The number of business establishments increased by 2.5% last year.

Is that good? Bad? So-so? Without some context for what a 2.5% growth rate means, there is no way to know for sure.

There is a lot more information delivered when the number is put in context of (a) past performance, (b) nearby communities, or (c) a combination of the two. Like this:

The number of business establishments increased by 2.5% last year, its highest growth rate in the last 5 years.

The number of business establishments increased by 2.5% last year, which was the 3rd highest growth rate among the 10 communities in our region.

The number of business establishments increased by 2.5% last year. This ranked 3rd among the 10 communities in our region, which is the first time we’ve ranked in the top half in the last 5 years.

What about the context of other economic forces affecting the community? If it’s a tourist-driven economy, compare business growth to growth in the number of visitors. If it’s an agricultural economy, compare business growth to changes in crop shipments or farm revenue.

Use consistent benchmarks. A benchmark group is a set of similar communities that is used for comparison purposes. They should be chosen based on one or more criteria (similar geographic area, similar population size, similar type of economy, similar urban or suburban or rural location, etc.) and used consistently for all of the data comparisons. Picking a different benchmark group for every data set would make it look like you’re cherry-picking the ones that make you look good (which you might consider stooping to if you’re doing marketing). The goal is to gain insight into what’s happening, not to obscure what’s happening.

Keep the presentation simple. This is a challenging article to write because I’m talking about data, and usually it’s much easier to talk about data that the audience can see. The effective use of charts and data graphics helps a lot, but they should be simple and not try to communicate too many ideas at once. Don’t be afraid to round off numbers if it doesn’t change the meaning. Especially eliminate the use of excessive decimal points! It’s clutter for the page and the mind.

Know your data sources, and create new ones. There actually is a lot of good data out there if you know where to find it. How about your Social Services Ministry to track income assistance cases? Are you comfortable using CANSIM, the home of many, many data sets available from Statistics Canada that is especially useful if you work in a somewhat larger community (10,000+ people) or region. Does your provincial real estate association produce comparable data by community or region? Did you know that Canada Revenue Agency releases tax filer data, showing income levels and sources for all income tax filings down to the community level? What can property assessment data tell you about the community’s evolving tax base over time? Ports and airports? Tourist attractions? Not to mention the many other data sources that might work for a particular project.

As for creating your own data, is there a friendly face in the business licensing department or planning or finance who can generate regular reports for you, based on parameters that are meaningful to the local economy? Or given the ease of online surveys, can you do a short, regular (say semi-annual) survey of the local business community to track local business sentiment and key business challenges? Business Retention and Expansion surveys collect lots of information that can be useful for multiple purposes.

Excel is your friend. If your job involves working with and presenting data, the more familiar you are with Excel (or equivalent), the easier it will be to make simple calculations and transformations of the data and significantly enhance the presentation.


Most of the discussion above is about how to work and present data to maximize the insight that it provides. But especially for something like benchmarking, don’t underestimate the interest of local politicians and the general public in knowing how your community compares to its peers. The more the local EDO is looked upon as a source of useful and interesting information, apart from all of the other good things they do, the better for the public profile of the position.


About the Author

Jamie Vann Struth is a professional economist and consultant with 18 years of experience working with communities in economic development, economic impact analysis, municipal finance and land economics. His work starts with the numbers – finding them, analyzing them, and presenting them clearly – in support of economic development strategies, growth and development forecasts, financial sustainability plans and more.

He has been a regular instructor at the Western Economic Development Course in Richmond, BC for the last five years and is an occasional faculty member in the School of Business at the BC Institute of Technology.

Jamie is a principal of Vann Struth Consulting Group, based in Vancouver, and Excel is one of his very best friends.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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