Ouch, this is embarrassing:
In a report submitted last week to the Vermont legislature, the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development appears to have plagiarized three news stories and used photographs without permission.
Since we’re discussing plagiarism here, let me first disclose that the previous paragraph was written by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.
The ACCD report was a review of the remote worker grant program — known in the vernacular as the $10,000 giveaway. It offers up to $10,000 to people who relocate to Vermont and work remotely for out-of-state employers. The plagiarized material profiled three recipients waxing poetic about their new lives in Vermont. Large swaths of text were lifted from reporting by Seven Days, CNBC and CNN. It also used photos taken by ace freelance photographer Jeb Wallace-Brodeur without attribution or payment. Which is how a freelancer makes a living, don’t ya know. (Note: ACCD has updated the online version of the report, giving proper credit to the media outlets.)
This is a bad look and an embarrassment for ACCD. And Commissioner Joan Goldstein did herself no favor by labeling the plagiarism as an unintentional “oversight.” (I mean, c’mon, whoever put together the report had to know where the material came from. Someone clearly, knowingly, took an ethical shortcut.)
But in the focus on plagiarism we shouldn’t overlook the meat of the report, which does little to demonstrate the value of the program. Instead, it highlights the program’s inherent flaws.
First, the report leans heavily on the widespread “media awareness.” This is the program’s must substantial — if that’s the right word — accomplishment: worldwide news coverage and “more than two billion impressions.” Unfortunately, the actual value of “awareness” is unmeasurable at best, nonexistent at worst. I mean, how many webpages do you visit every day? How many of those “impressions” stick with you for more than a few minutes?
The PR firm contracted by the agency says the program’s media coverage was equivalent to a $7 million ad buy. Which sounds impressive, but in the virtually infinite world of the Internet, what exactly does a $7 million ad campaign get you?
If a business makes a $7 million ad buy, it expects a tangible return substantially outweighing the initial investment. Otherwise, that $7 million ad buy isn’t “worth” $7 million; it’s a sunk cost. So the PR firm’s estimate is meaningless, unless the state can prove an actual ROI. Which it can’t.
The report touts the fact that between January 1 and September 15, the grant application form was downloaded 4,201 times. That’s great. However, the actual number of grantees was a mere 84. The other 4,117 downloads are meaningless. Taxpayer dollars given to those few dozen fortunates: $320,834.
Needless to say, 84 is something less than a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to make progress on Vermont’s demographic crisis and workforce shortage. It’s a rounding error, is what it is. The exposure is nice. The awareness of Vermont as potentially a place to live and work is great. But that and two-fitty will get you a cup of coffee.
I should add that those lucky 84 brought along 90 “additional family adults” and 44 children, which is nice, but isn’t exactly a significant bump to Vermont’s declining school-age population. The average age of a grantee was 39 years, which is also a refreshing droplet in a rapidly aging state.
Here’s another bit of bad news. Of the 84 grantees, 38 — nearly half — settled in Chittenden County, which is the only part of Vermont that doesn’t have a demographic problem.
Not surprisingly, the plagiarized material in the ACCD report focused on three people who settled in rural Vermont. You might also remember that when the Scott administration did a press event highlighting the “success” of the program, it featured two people who had settled in Bennington. I can understand the political motive behind emphasizing the non-Chittenden settlers, but it’s misleading.
Also, one of those two Benningtonians later moved on to Burlington, but hey. Can’t win ’em all.
There’s also this. 96 percent of grantees had some prior experience in Vermont — vacationing, visiting family, living or attending school here. So the program is encouraging people who are already familiar with Vermont’s virtues. It’s not convincing anyone who hasn’t personally experienced Vermont.
One more thing. When asked which factors contributed to their decision to move to Vermont, 58 percent cited the remote worker grant program.
Which means that 42 percent of the tiny number of grantees would have moved here without the program. The free handout was just icing on the cake.
Notwithstanding all of this, ACCD considers the program a success, and wants to do more. The agency isn’t calling for more money; rather, it wants the legislature to fold the remote worker program into the much larger Vermont Employment Growth Initiative (VEGI), which could allow the remote worker program to grow — at the expense of other VEGI initiatives, unless lawmakers decide to boost the entire VEGI budget.
In a way, VEGI is a natural home for the remote worker program. VEGI is a tangled web of economic-development programs with unproven track records. Ask state auditor Doug Hoffer. He’ll tell you that the effectiveness of these programs cannot be proven. There’s supposed to be a “but for” test — “but for the incentive, the growth would not have happened.” However, actually applying the “but for” test is universally ignored in policymaking and political circles.
And we already know from ACCD’s own report that at least 42 percent of the grant program’s extremely modest success would still have happened without the program.
Still, encouraged by its view of the program’s accomplishments, ACCD is pondering an expansion to include grants to businesses that relocate to Vermont. Not surprising; as meager as the “but for” evidence may be for the remote worker program, it’s more tangible than the evidence for most of ACCD’s incentive programs. So hey, why not double down?
Well, for one thing, you’re sucking money away from other ideas that might actually make a difference. You’re fooling yourself into believing that you’ve done something. And you’re wasting several hundred thousand dollars (or more) in taxpayer dollars. That may seem like pocket change in terms of the entire state budget. But when lawmakers argue that they can’t possibly spare more than $100,000 for a state ethics commission (for example), then I lose patience with the notion that we can afford to spend six figures on a dubious program. What if we, off the top of my head here, put that money into a community collage scholarship program for high-achieving high schoolers in technical fields? (If one already exists, then add the money to it.) We could make a substantial impact on the lives of at least 84 Vermonters — and directly address a crucial aspect of the state’s workforce shortage, instead of doling out the money to people who move here but work elsewhere.
But I suspect that conventional wisdom will carry the day. The administration will likely get some form of the business incentive program. And if the remote worker program gets rolled up into VEGI, the agency will no longer have to worry about issuing a stand-alone report that proves its own initiative is wearing no clothes.