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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)