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Fortitude and Public Leadership

Last week Tom Friedman wrote a piece for the New York Times (Real Men Tax Gas) that got my attention, especially after my recent Blog on public Leadership (Leaders Stand Up, September 8).  Mr. Friedman’s premise, which threads through much of his recent commentary, is that, if we make the tough calls now, we will reap major positive transformational changes that will ripple throughout American society. However, for some reason, decision makers are more comfortable with traditional policies that prolong war in Afghanistan, grid lock the health care debate, and facilitate dependency on foreign oil. He somewhat strongly states that Americans are ‘wimps’ for failing to deal with the really tough issues – those that impact our pocketbooks…such as taxes that could solve many of the current conundrums.

Because if its foresight, France (yes, France!) now generates almost 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. It manages nuclear waste, security, and location issues without rancor and has developed a society that embraces nuclear energy as a fundamental utility platform. The U.S. has not built a new nuclear power plant since the 1979 Three Mile Island mishap where no one was killed or injured. Scientists have testified that the storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is safe, yet thirty years (!) have passed without progress toward what many scientists believe is a key component of an electric grid that can power the predicted super trains, light rail, and growing need for commercial and residential electricity. Will the cost be enormous? Yes, but what about the ultimate value of the investment? Return on Investment (ROI) is a factor in this discussion, especially with the predicted cost of oil within five to ten years. Don’t get me started on the predicted cost of asphalt…a key ingredient of infrastructure maintenance. It alone could bankrupt many public works departments and state DOTs or drastically alter their balance of services.

Friedman also cites Denmark, which had the foresight and fortitude to impose a very high tax on gasoline (close to $5 per gallon) and used the generated revenue to invest in North Sea oil exploration, new energy conservation initiatives, and a variety of innovative energy production options. Decision makers there had no more or better data than we have in the U.S., but were prescient, prudent and tough enough to make the hard call. Pay now before we have to pay A LOT later, seemed to be the rationale. The decision seems to have also been driven by the assertion that ‘WE know what’s best for us and we will make decisions that are in the long-term best interest of the Country.’

Referencing energy economist Phil Verleger, Friedman notes that a $1 tax on gasoline and diesel fuel in the U.S. would raise close to $140 billion a year. And, if he had that additional revenue, he would allocate 45 cents of each dollar to pay down the deficit, 45 cents to pay for new health care and 10 cents to cushion the burden of such a tax on the poor and long commuters. By biting this very big bullet, Friedman suggests that such a tax would improve oil-related national security, reduce the health insurance burden on American business, expand health care coverage options, and add new dimensions to several strategic positions held by the U.S.

The point is that conflict arises when decisions have immediate and recognizable costs associated with actions. From what has been reported, any discussion about new taxes is ‘off the table’ in Washington, yet Congress continues to spend enormous sums on traditional government actions, such as war in Afghanistan, foreign aid for dozens of countries, special earmark projects, and entitlements. There does not seem to be much stomach for getting ahead of several predicted curves and spending now to prevent catastrophic social and economic costs later,

The questions for communities remain:  What is most important for the long-term preservation and continued development of every community? What expenditures produce the greatest long-term benefit for the most people? What are the essential foundational platforms that must be in place to preserve our society and leave a Legacy for those who come after us? And, do we have the fortitude to do what is critical now in order to reap the benefits later? Time will tell.

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.  www.futurescorp.com  (public futures)

The Future and Public Leadership

A few years ago I was presenting at the American Public Works Association International Congress and had an opportunity to work with David Zach, a talented and entertaining futurist speaker. My program later that afternoon was on the future of public works and addressed challenges leaders would face. One area where David and I differ relates to the concept of predictability.

Even as a trained futurist, David’s stated view was that the future is not foreseeable and it is folly to attempt prediction. I disagree. While there are certainly many variables that will have impacts that are impossible to predict, there are many that have measureable and predictable outcomes. Public leaders need to understand those trends and be committed to planning for predictable community impact. Remember, much of history is cyclic – it repeats itself…you just have to understand history, be aware of the trends and have the foresight to implement ahead of the curve. What goes around DOES come around.

A New Era

My best guess is that we are indeed entering a new era…it is a time of transition and transformation. Predictions range from the end of the world in 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar) to devolution into a global agrarian society within a hundred years. We read predictions of the United States being divided into four autonomous mega regions, China eclipsing the U.S. as the global economic power, and about worldwide class or religious warfare. Those things are hard to predict…but there are a LOT of sharp people dedicated to positive outcomes related to climate, economics, peace, and global collaboration. For every negative possible future, there is a positive future. For virtually every negative variable, there is a counter-trend. However, change is in the air. Tipping points have been reached in several areas and be assured – the pace of change will accelerate. The outcomes could be profound. Is your state or local government ready? Are you sure? How do you know?

Scenario Planning For Public Leaders

Converging variables related to water, peak oil, global economics, environmental degradation, and global climate change are real and most exhibit data that contributes to predictability. Similar data exists for economic development, infrastructure, and natural resource utilization.  Public leaders must be adept in the art of Assessing the Possible. It is essential to know state and local trends, understand potential impacts, and have clarity about short- and long-term community impact. Very few elected officials or public managers have been trained in scenario planning as it relates to government or public agencies. Fewer have developed expertise in this form of long-view strategic thought or have implemented local collaborative programs. Now is the time.

Government Failures

Most Americans are in denial. They believe that, with a little luck and a few stimulus dollars, things will soon return to the good old days. Others predict a longer return to ‘normal’ citing an inherent inclination toward innovation and the creative American spirit as forces that will right the ship.  Not going to happen – at least not the ‘return to the good old days’ part. It’s a new day…a new era. And government at all levels MUST provide leadership. Several things must be done:

  • Government leaders and managers must become more enlightened about converging trends that will bring enormous community change.
  • These same leaders and managers must understand the difference between issue and impact; change doesn’t matter much unless it has impact. What are the potential IMPACTS of known trends and predicted changes?
  • Government must become more collaborative and share a longer view; impact and opportunity will encompass regions – not just communities. How can we engender a new commitment to regional cooperation?
  • At all levels, government must become more aware of escalating issues and challenges; it must be more adaptable and nimble when addressing known or predicted events. This takes leadership – not politics.
  • Inertia is eroding the democratic process…there is gridlock everywhere. Some pretty stark changes will take place when gasoline is $6 then $9 per gallon…perhaps then we’ll see collaborative efforts to address mass transit. With peak oil now an openly discussed, data-driven fact, how long will it take to address the ‘what’ ifs’ related to reduced oil supplies and $9 gas? Same with climate change and potential for drought in key agricultural areas, reduced mineral supplies, and eroding infrastructure. I won’t even get into Social Security and Medicare costs or the health care debate.
  • We must deal with fundamental issues – many related to finance and business- but others related to ‘first things first.’ What are the basic human and community needs that provide the foundation for quality of life, prosperity, and economic vitality? Never mind that there may be a notable contraction in the size of local economies; people can still prosper and have a great life with much less. Does anyone doubt that?

Unite to Confront a Common Foe

Everywhere I go I encourage government leaders to ‘Confront Reality!’ The common foe is not change; it is the unwillingness to confront issues and pose tough remedies. Oceans will rise, the planet will continue to warm, the global population will grow, oil and other natural resources will be depleted, and cultures will compete. It is the historic cycle. The most critical questions pertain to our response and willingness to make a commitment to a future legacy. Government is being overwhelmed; converging challenges are just too big. Regardless, a new transformative era is underway and gaining momentum. The real work begins with every state and local community and, as strategic thinkers, there is much we can analyze, predict and address. It’s time for every community to confront the evolving world and pursue thoughtful strategies that forge new alliances and totally new paths to desired alternative futures. There are options and opportunities.  But, do we have the vision, competitive spirit and will to collaboratively work through each complex issue? And will we do so before it is too late?

 

 

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.  www.futurescorp.com  (public futures)

Leaders Stand Up

I am always intrigued by the annual lists of ‘Best Leaders’ appearing in some of this Country’s most prominent magazines. One would assume that, with all the nifty people identified, the U.S. must be awash in the type of leadership that can guide us to whatever promise land we envision. However, without diminishing any of the fine people who appeared in various publications over the past year, what seems strange is the dearth of local leaders identified for their enormous contribution to communities throughout this nation.

Last year Robert Samuelson wrote a nice piece citing trust as the central factor in instilling confidence in times of turmoil. Whether the financial, industrial or public sector, progress depends on the willingness of people to accept challenge and move forward. In The Great Confidence Game (Newsweek, September 29, 2008) Samuelson references the financial system, but confidence is just as important for every other facet of American life. We are a nation of believers…just give us something to believe in and we’re on board. But lately, with a year of acute challenge behind us, it seems that people desire a finite local presence – a touchstone that warrants trust and builds confidence. As the recovery struggles onward, the ability to generate confidence will become our most precious asset.

As I noted some time ago in another post, communities seek four things during difficult times – Clarity, Direction, Truth, and a Dignified, Harmonious Leadership Style. They also require forums for exchange and opportunities to seek understanding. Above all, people need a practical vision of the future that is believable and achievable; the days of ethereal vision statements are over.

In one periodical listing America’s Best Leaders, I recently noted that, while there are a few deserving educators, most selections are apportioned among the fields of science, health care, economics, business, the arts, and activism/ advocacy. Only one local government leader, Miami’s exceptional Mayor, Manny Diaz, is cited as one of America’s outstanding leaders. As president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Diaz is a great choice and epitomizes the best of local government leadership. If you are unaware of his contributions, you should review further – he’s pretty amazing.

But what of those who toil daily to keep the wheels from falling off in cities, counties and state agencies across America? The ICMA annually recognizes exceptional leaders among a wide variety of local governments and always celebrates their many contributions to their local communities. But is this enough? When I first began the Leaving a Legacy and Public Futures programs, the premise was (and remains) that some of the best leaders, innovators, and managers in America are found in state and local government. This is where the rubber truly hits the road and where things must get done. Potholes on Main Street are there for all to see – as are public parks, sports facilities, emergency response by police and fire, snow removal, water, wastewater, public health and zoning issues. Local leadership is magnified and scrutinized; it is challenged with insufficient funds, growing demand, and people in need. Above all, local leaders are accessible – they are on the front lines every day.

I am unsure of the mechanism but I would like to spread the news to the media and the public: Many of the truly great leaders in America are local officials, managers, and hard working employees. If things get really tough in this Country – and the signs point to more challenges ahead – it will be local government that responds and performs. Maybe then local leaders will be recognized.

As with virtually all of the ‘Best Leader’ selections, few, if any of the best local leaders will ever seek recognition. Perhaps it is enough to know they are there. And just maybe that will be enough to elevate confidence and trust to new levels. Something has to change.

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.  www.futurescorp.com  (public futures)