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Will the “Jobs Summit” do any good?

It seems like every country has organised some variant of a “Jobs Summit” where the great and the good are invited along to generate ideas for getting the economy back on track. Having attended a few such events over the years, I’ve learnt that they follow a predictable pattern.

The day starts with coffee and chatter while everyone arrives. Following a welcome by the summit chairman (usually a business leader or noted academic), the top politician tells you gravely about the challenges ahead, the resolve of the government to meet them, and the importance of the advice you will be giving. You then hear various economic briefings and snappy thought-starter presentations (not too heavy, not too light) from respected figures.

Next you divide into workgroups which focus onto specific themes. In the breakout room, the group hear another briefing related to their theme. A noted CEO, a mid-ranked minister, or a professional consultant facilitates a discussion to generate ideas, assess them and rank them for effectiveness. Everyone regroups, where the facilitators report back each group’s conclusions. There’s usually a bit of clarification and discussion, before a plenary session tries to pull everything together. The day ends with some drinks and networking, while the senior politician, the summit chairman and the leading business lobby group representative make warm and encouraging noises for the media that “the government has got lots of ideas to follow up”. It’s not unusual for the government to “respond to suggestions” with some new initiatives announced during the plenary session or the closing addresses. And then everyone goes home. For months afterwards, you are deluged by letters from ministers telling you what they’re doing. You start to suspect that there’s a secret cabinet prize for who’s got the longest list of initiatives and programmes; “many small” beats “few large”.

Do these events generate new ideas? Very rarely; the same ideas, issues and prejudices get trotted out every time. Do they get people in the room who otherwise would rarely talk to each other? No; these are the great and the good; they meet in various forums all the time; they have access to government, directly and via industry bodies. Are new initiatives generated as a result of the forum? Again, very rarely. Those industry bodies work with government policy people all the time. Anything announced as a major new initiative will have been worked on behind the scenes for some time already.

So why bother? Is it just window-dressing? In part, yes; most leaders know that driving strategic change requires some stage management. The true value of these events is a signal that something is being done, that someone has taken charge and is attempting to deal with the situation, and is building goodwill and consensus around what needs to be done.

In other words, it’s all about confidence, and you might need a shot of that right now.

First posted February 25th, 2009