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Parables and Realities

The current rush to reduce government reminds me of the old parable that goes something like this: Back in the Day, a gaggle of old farmers were lamenting the cost of raising crops and the high cost of maintaining plow horses. As one of the younger farmers recounted his financial problems, a senior member of the group suggested that, if he replaced just 10 percent of his horses’ oats with sawdust, he could save quite a bit on his feed bill, especially if he had several horses. And, the best part was, the horses wouldn’t even notice! Upon trying this simple solution, the young farmer was able to continue production and began saving money. This appeared to be an ideal solution, and, since the horses didn’t seem to mind, over the months he continued increasing the amount of sawdust in the feed until it approached 80 percent. By then, the farmer was saving so much money on feed he was able to overlook (i.e. rationalize) the fact that his horses’ performance had grown less robust and production had suffered. Entranced with thoughts of how he could spend all the money he was saving, he did not consider the future.  Then, one day, his horses died.

Growing Workloads

In my travels, I see public agency workloads growing along with expectations and scrutiny. But this is occurring at a time when retiring employees are not being replaced, training is being reduced or cut entirely, hours are being reduced and layoffs abound. We are witnessing divergent courses – a growth in public demand, expectation and oversight and a decline in capability and capacity to perform. Of course, public employees then catch hell because they are not performing. Never mind the fact that their facilities and equipment are aging, training has been cut, FTEs are insufficient to achieve expected results, and overall infrastructure is deteriorating. Most employees are hard working, diligent, thoughtful and darned good at what they do. But after a while, insufficient budgets coupled with growing workloads do not promote high spirits, commitment, and sustainability. No one wants to work in a place where there is growing instability, few positive comments, and little respect for imbedded expertise. If there were more private sector jobs, we would see many top people leaving government. In these times, a little appreciation goes a long way!

More Bubbles

A few weeks ago I commented that there were more bubbles about to burst on the American culture and economy. How will we respond to $6 or $8 per gallon gasoline? When will cars that get 50 miles per gallon be affordable to the average citizen? Who cares about cash for clunkers when weighing that whopping $3500 against a $40,000 Prius or $35,000 Volt? There are more financial issues that need to work their way through the system…it might be three to five years before the economy re-centers. What can school (and all special) districts, cities and counties do in the meantime?

Understanding the Future

It is not about KNOWING the future. Just understanding the drivers that will impact and promote change is a great step. Many government agencies tend to hold on to old ways, archaic systems, and antiquainted policies. Smart leaders are getting ahead of the curve…planning now for anticipated events that are generally predictable. The price of gasoline and asphalt WILL go up. What will that mean to urban/ suburban and comprehensive planning? How must transportation planning change? If we end up with really big trucks and really small cars along with really long trains, what will that mean? Do we have the required plans, revenue, systems, facilities and expertise? Are we actively seeking these essential elements?

This country cannot squeeze down public entities so far that basic services are eliminated. As with all affluent societies, Americans want the level of service to which they have become accustomed. Frankly, that is no longer possible. However one interprets the parable above, the message seems clear. While significant budget cutting is prudent and triage is part of management, care must be taken to view the whole picture. There must be some clarity about how the future is developing and plans prepared accordingly. Most planning I review is short-term and very operations oriented. Let’s get on our tiptoes and look over the horizon. Remember, the future is where we’re going to live. It’s going to arrive no matter what we do, so we might as well be architects of the desired future – at least to the extent we can.    

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 conference 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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