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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.


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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