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People Getting What They Want

James M. Cain (1892-1977) once said that one of the great tragedies of mankind is people getting what they want. While this renowned Maryland novelist (The Postman Always Rings Twice and 21 other novels) focused on the darker side of conflict, his writing was energized by the recognition that good things do not always come from accommodation. There is a lesson here for public administrators and elected officials. It translates just as well to the business community.

My audiences always react strongly to questions pertaining to entitlement. ‘Do you feel there is a growing expectation that government at all levels will take care of things? In your community, do you perceive this as a trend?’ Answers are curious, especially in smaller work groups. There is clarity about the need for social services to help the less fortunate, and not nearly as much emotion about helping those in need. But, for those paying attention, recent trends are more disturbing.

We want… is a common refrain. Various interests want good and more roads, less congestion, free parking close to shopping areas, nice, well kept parks, a zero downtime infrastructure, clean water, great health services, housing services for the poor and disenfranchised, really nice police officers, a responsive EMS system, fire stations close to MY property, clean air, etc. This list goes on. It is enormous. In this society citizens want and expect many things. We want zoos, art galleries, skate parks, free-zone graffiti walls, libraries, cheap (and very accommodating) public transportation, efficient airports, charter schools, food banks, homeless shelters, and sports venues. Did I mention cheap higher education?

What Cain identified was the tendency to manipulate one’s environment. While he did not couch it in biological terms, it is founded on the basic pleasure-pain principle that states that an organism will constantly manipulate its environment to achieve the greatest comfort and opportunity. Homo sapiens are the masters. We have had our way with the planet and every city, county, state and federal agency is chock-full of programs that accommodate wants more than needs. Constituents battle over services that fulfill their wants or expectations. Some of those are laudatory; others are questionable when measured against long-term community value.

The future is where we’ll live. After almost 60 years of broad-spectrum accommodation, decision makers are faced with classic triage. With limited resources, deteriorating infrastructure, a struggling economy, huge costs, an educational system that is under fire, and more people falling below the poverty line, what actions are most essential for preserving a community’s future? Giving people what they want is not a reasonable approach.

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With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

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A Path To Progress

I have lately been involved with various forms of analysis and municipal planning energized by the economic downturn. Progress toward various goals or even sensible destinations has been hampered by fear-driven pessimism and the tendency to find comfort in inertia.

As a ‘progressive conservative’ I hold firm to the belief that moving forward is always best, even if the pace is slow and deliberate, guided by hard-won cultural principles and norms. Progress within any form of government requires a willingness to listen, opportunity for shared credit, and clarity about the value accrued from actions taken.

Recently, a county commissioner asked me how to get people to understand what is happening and to cooperate with necessary local strategies. My reply addressed the human need for people to perceive value in what is being done, relative to what is negatively impacting their lives.
From my experience, value is generally based on the magnitude of the issue and the remedy, its impact on the community, its ability to generate a sustainable contribution, and it’s overall perceived relevance to the majority of stakeholders.

Whether difficult or good times, progress depends on openly shared information to create a broader base of knowledge that creates a new foundation of understanding. Even with that understanding, advocates must have the ability to tell a compelling story, presented in a manner that reflects the impact of both issue and solution. Only such a sequence can counter the human tendency to embrace inaction and the subtle, sometimes comfortable, decline that comes with it.

Being Prepared for Challenge requires the ability to ask tough questions and facilitate progress during difficult times. Designing the future won’t wait…getting ahead of the curve requires an understanding of people and how communities respond to challenge. The ability to explain trends and their potential/ probable impact is an essential skill. Remember…it is not always what you say, but how you say it that matters.

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With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

Forecast for Q2 – General Thoughts and Data

There are mixed signals coming from most sectors – some positive, others negative. The best we can do is to look at the data and calculate how these “converging variables” will impact our communities.

·         As most know, GDP will continue to lag, but there are signs it will not fall to the 2% – 2.5 % growth contraction originally predicted. Most likely, we’ll see growth at -1.8% to 2%. Still not good, but getting better. Caution is the main characteristic in every state and community…

·         Interest rates will continue to be low, with prime at around 3.25%; this is good for those who choose to borrow and will help boost business as stimulus funds work through the system.

·         Speaking of stimulus funds, have patience!  This is a financial phenomenon that takes time and will have many fluctuations over the next several quarters – well into 2010. Housing will pick up, although more slowly than communities would like. There is a huge amount of inventory that must work its way through the market. I wish there had been more effort to let truly bad mortgages fail instead of propping up so many poor loans. The correction may take longer due to messing around with so many really poor mortgages. However, this is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ phenomenon. There are downsides to virtually every alternative so second guessing is rampant, but not very productive.

·         Due to the time needed to work stimulus funds through the huge U.S. society and financial system, unemployment will continue to grow – perhaps not past 10%, but probably to 9.5% by year-end. We’ll watch this carefully because it has a huge impact on every state and community. I don’t see momentum slowing until well into 2010 and then it will take time to get people back to work. Three years to return to under 5% unemployment would not surprise me, and many who find employment will be ‘underemployed.’

·         Oil will continue well below 2007-2008 highs, with most industry analysts predicting crude averaging around $60 or less a barrel as we get into the second quarter. It could increase during summer months, but reduced travel may keep prices lower than predicted. This is a huge stimulus for the U.S.

·         Better news on trade – the deficit is decreasing to around $450 billion, which is 3.2% of GDP for 2009 and still very high. This is important…it could be a key barometer of overall long-term growth and, if exports accelerate, will help energize the recovery.

·         Public pension funds are being watched carefully. All are getting hammered by the market and some will be in dire straits within a few years. More specifics on this in later blogs.

·         Many of my law enforcement contacts are very concerned about growing violence and crime – especially as unemployment  benefits run out. Even with extensions, there are many who have not saved, cannot find a job, and will soon have no benefits. This creates a powder keg of survival instinct driven by hunger, fear, frustration, and anger. People with few alternatives will seek to survive…and in some areas it could get dicey. Public safety is aware of this and is preparing in most communities. Smaller communities have fewer resources but could have more opportunities to provide neighbor-to-neighbor assistance.  Unemployed people with insufficient resources are a BIG negative with enormous potential to upset recovery plans. Get ahead of this curve with proactive plans to help the community…along with plans to react to safety and security issues.

·         There is far too much finger pointing and accusatory language around Washington, coupled with political grandstanding. None of it deals with reality – and that reality is that complex economic problems, as during the 1930s, require a lot of government funds to bridge the period before the market can find firm footing. If private enterprise cannot pour money into the economy, the government must. Patience is the key…let the plan work and amend as new data is absorbed. This is a new, very different world than in the 1930s. The Administration has started a series of curative actions; those actions will morph many times as the U.S. and global markets react. The key is to watch, remain ready to react, be unafraid to act, and gather every ounce of available new data. This is happening. Q2 2009 will see improvement over Q1. But there will be fluctuations that will impact every level of government, especially those agencies without clear plans, good data, or the will or process to respond.

·         Consumers will spend less, but will still be out there making sensible purchases. This contraction will endure far beyond 2009. It may be the beginning of a new era characterized by fiscal responsibility, less reliance on credit, lowered (and more realistic) expectations, and a trend toward more long-term thinking.

·         I see the opportunity for more collaboration and partnering in the next several years. Private-public and public-public collaborations are essential and will bring new efficiencies. Begin or continue exploring new models that expand options at every level.

As a corollary to the above, this is the perfect time for federal, state and local officials to consider what specific agencies should look like five or ten years from now. It appears that the current trend is toward more government and perhaps more intrusive government (I heard this again today from a financial services professional). I am not so sure this is a viable trend. It may be a reactive and curative/preventive action that might not endure at its present level. What will endure is the public’s interest in fairness, truth, and services. Unfortunately, we live in an entitlement society where everyone wants government to provide services but no one wants to pay the freight. This must end. I encourage government entities to disclose information about available funds, reveal what basic services are provided at what cost, and ask the public to decide what is essential. Some governors insist on transportation projects while others see education as more critical. Many see water or wastewater projects as first priority. Whatever stated priorities, as noted recently in another blog, the key question is ‘What is most important for long-term development, health, safety, and prosperity?’ We’ll explore this in more depth soon.  4/7/09

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With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

Probability, Predictability and Inevitability

Because much of my work is dedicated to helping public agencies prepare for the future, there are always conversations with highly analytic personalities who scoff at the concept of futuring. Some become quite exercised at the prospect of predictability, while other seem mildly amused that they are even participating in the discussion.

My approach during a recent program was to describe a reservoir that supplied the majority of a community’s water supply. I posed a simple equation based on this proposition – If you know the reservoir’s capacity and its current volume, its inflow (recharge) rate, and its extraction (discharge or outflow) rate, would it seem logical to believe that you can predict its ability to sustain the community water supply? Or, perhaps fall short as the community grows or declines or precipitation patterns change? Data is available on household consumption, leakage rates (the EPA estimates that 1.2 trillion gallons of water is lost annually through household leakage!), inflow, outflow, and community growth, so why is it so difficult to calculate and predict water supply availability? Frankly, it is quite simple.

The same process applies to predicting road surface life, landfill capacity, traffic congestion, new infrastructure requirements, and virtually every element of public management. In my experience many elected or professional managers who initially express reluctance to engage in true strategic or scenario planning become strong advocates once they experience a data-driven If-Then work session.

Having good data is the key. If there are 4,400 miles of asphalt roadway in the county, average weather, traffic weight and volume data is available, and road surface lifespan is known, managers can predict deterioration rates. Replacement can then be scheduled and budgeted. Pretty simple. The key is a focus on the future – and data that allows probability analysis and predictability. It is a learned skill and an earned perspective.

Public managers and elected leaders must aggressively embrace future planning beyond annual budgets. Long-term strategic and operations planning must be taught to all managers as a core skill. Public agencies that exhibit futuring skills are typically more efficient and prepared for the challenges ahead.

__________________ 

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

Deviate From The Norm, Please!

Recently much has been written about predictability and difficulties with managing current challenges during constantly accelerating economic, social and technological change. This raises interesting dichotomies related to the purpose and value of government and the role of public officials. Public managers and elected officials must be cautioned to refrain from relying too heavily on the cozy world of the Bell Curve to assess norms and calculate probability. Too many big changes are energized by totally unpredictable or marginally probable events that fall totally outside accepted norms. While an old refrain, I am reminded of those who constantly react to crises by ‘working harder’ instead of stopping to assess the situation then considering whether there just might be a better approach. The ‘working smarter’ alternative applies to government more than ever.

Many pundits have reviled the path that follows traditional approaches and norms. Many question the hell bent commitment to rebuilding and even extending the national highway system when free-wheeling motoring may be short lived. Since the U.S. passed the peak of its oil reserves in 1970 and the entire world supply is thought to have peaked since 2005, we are on an accelerating downward spiral of supply and are seeing upward companion spirals of demand and cost (trust me, cost will soon far exceed current levels!). Similar circumstances are reflected in the trend toward huge budgets for correctional facilities while education budgets don’t come close to meeting expressed need in a world demanding accelerated skills in math, science, language, and socio-cultural understanding. Talk about reactive budgeting!

More than application of fact and intelligence, there is a fundamental element missing from many decision making processes – at the legislative, council and commission levels. That is, the process of considering and answering the question, ‘What are the most essential, foundational needs that provide a solid platform for long-term stability, prosperity, and development?’ How long have we known that immunizations prevent childhood diseases like mumps, measles and whooping cough? How much will we save in health care costs through immunizations? (A lot!) How long have we known that public and multi-modal transit is a better alternative that individual motor vehicles? Too often, decisions are made without considering the long-term or practical view.

There are far too many decisions that abandon strategic thought for the safe world of normative thinking – most of which is fueled by budget cycles and crises.  While there are many rare and unpredictable events that have and will shape communities, there are ample data to assess potential and apply predictability equations IF officials and managers can break away from static, normative thinking that tends to produce the same results year after year. (Didn’t Al Einstein define that as insanity?)

Several elected officials recently commented to me that there are just so many things that can’t be predicted – too many ‘Black Swans’ – those totally unpredicted events that bring great change. I countered that once managers and planners begin to understand the entire concept of strategic thought and assessment, unpredictability greatly dissipates. Nassim Taleb (The Black Swan, 2007) has said that people ‘scorn the abstract’ when faced with serious potentialities. Most just don’t want to think about all those scary What Ifs.

My message to public managers is to embrace two aspects simultaneously – the abstract world of what ifs, and the world of cold, hard fact. If-then scenarios are combinations of data and pure speculation – some pretty far out. The key is to train public managers and leaders to feel greater comfort with long-term foundational investments based on anticipated outcomes and a vision of a desired future. To cling to an annual same-old process can guarantee an illusion of stability. It can also condemn a community, state or entire country to a path toward mediocrity or worse.

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With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.

We Don’t Know Hard Times

Timothy Egan’s remarkable book on the American Dust Bowl era (The Worst Hard Time, Mariner Books 2006) is an exclamation point for those who remain optimistic during the current downturn. From 1929 through 1939 those who had sought their fortunes on the central plains, in industry or in the financial centers of New York or Chicago experienced a series of the worst natural and financial disasters in American history. Interviewed by reporters seeking perspective, those who lived through that time repeat an almost identical refrain – “The current downturn isn’t hardship…You haven’t seen hardship.”

During the past several months, my work with a variety of public administrators, planners, mayors and county commissioners has naturally led to conversations about lost jobs, reduced tax revenues, business closures, corporate deceit, and general public unrest. Because many senior managers and elected officials are first tier Baby Boomers, virtually all have parents, grandparents, or relatives who experienced hard times during the period from 1929 through the late 1930s. For those who heard about dresses and suits made from chicken feed sacks, walking miles to school, and families of 8 or more sharing a 300 square foot dugout in the Oklahoma panhandle, there is a recognition of the current challenge, along with an admonition that hard times haven’t arrived… yet.

 

Taking the good with the bad…

A central theme seems to be that the best of America came from the worst of times. From the late 1920s through World War II the country was united. The sense of purpose and community were enormous. At the local level, where cultural tap roots seem to grow deepest, the response to hardship is to turn outward – help others, open doors, share, collaborate, and participate.

The message I have heard over the past few months reflects the evolution of America – a slow drift back to community roots and values. Those who have experienced dark times would rather not repeat the challenge – once is certainly enough. But their message to current, and very blessed generations, is to save, recycle, share, care, and appreciate. Irrespective of this current economic decline, if current trends hold, two generations hence will face new challenges unlike any we have seen… such as enormously complex energy, fuel, and mobility challenges. What will those times be like?

Time is shorter than we think to Prepare for these new Challenges. Communities must have the foresight to take action to moderate otherwise inevitable consequences. One such way is to learn the art of scenario planning. This uniquely powerful assessment methodology is now a critical skill that allows us to Prepare for the Future rather than to succumb to it. Given the economic volatility we are living through, there could not be a more relevant time to embrace this process.

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With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.