I admire the Toronto tech community because they’ve shown us what committed organizers, working at the grass roots, can to do. They look at cities like Ottawa, with its powerful economic development agency, wistfully – sometimes to the point that those of us who have questions about it are characterized as having sour grapes.
I’d be the first to admit that OCRI does many good things – but it has core structural problems that prevent it from being what either the city/province or itself want it to be – which is THE ONLY funded representative of tech business economic development initiatives in the Ottawa.
All levels of government have allowed OCRI to blur the lines between its member’s interests and those of broader tech community it receives funding to serve. That’s where I have a problem – the approx. $1.3 M of city money and potentially the equivalent in provincial funding that this “member based organization” spends in the name of businesses that are not members. This is a fundamental conflict. In OCRI we have an organization that must serve members interests first, deciding how public money should be spent to support all local businesses. To me this is no more right that the partial franchise (vote) was right it its day. It can’t work because it is not representative by its very nature.
And take a look at its membership. Of Ottawa’s approx 1819 ‘knowledge based’ companies only 35% are OCRI members. A closer look at OCRI’s membership shows that something like 42% are service providers (lawyers & consultants) and a further 21% are government agencies. Remove them and only 13% of what most of us consider ‘knowledge companies’ are OCRI members. And one has to ask how services designed for Ottawa’s largest taxi company, the British High Commission and Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, numerous Ottawa hotels or the Greater Peterborough Regional DNA Center (all members) jell with the needs of the far more numerous small tech firms that are not members but are expected by public funders to be served by it. It makes no sense.
This wouldn’t be so bad if other groups were getting funding – but if you’ve approached funders (which I have) the answer is always the same ‘have you spoken to OCRI?’ It’s the strangle hold on funding and program delivery that’s the biggest problem because it stifles program innovation and stops underserved groups getting an organized voice to offset the ear of funders OCRI’s members have. I would argue that it’s this funding stranglehold that led to the death of the Ottawa Life Science Council and its eventual decision to merge with OCRI. I’d be interested if any Life Science companies reading this think are they better or worse served since the merger.
Lets take a look at how OCRI supports the community. Sure there are a lot of events – but the preponderance of them are fee based, and fees for non-members are typically 80% higher than for members. This could be to encourage membership, or alternatively to discourage the participation of non-members. Either is a logical stance for an organization interested in serving its members, but I would argue neither meets the community serving objectives implied by the large public subsidy OCRI receives.
It’s gets complex too. OCRI is a major advertiser, particularly to the two local tech focused papers. Whether this affects coverage is anybodies guess but I don’t believe the discrepancy between OCRI’s stated size of the Ottawa tech community (81,900) and the Conference Board of Canada’s numbers (46,000) got the coverage it deserved – especially because the size of Ottawa’s tech community gets to the core of the effectiveness of OCRI as the delivery and strategy vehicle for Ottawa’s tech economic development. It’s time we understood why these numbers are so different – and considered what that means for our economic development funding.
Finally the notion that only a few people with ‘sour grapes’ have these concerns is simply wrong. I didn’t make the above list of issues up – I heard them from OCRI Partners, obliquely from previous and current OCRI managers, and from not a few small tech businesses. The issues are a lot more substantive than sour grapes.
If there were no public money involved these criticisms would be moot. As there is and it’s both fair and right to ask if we are getting the best value and the outcomes from the public investment we put in.