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League of Wisconsin Municipalities Program

On October 14 I had the great pleasure of addressing the opening session of the Wisconsin League of Municipalities annual conference on the subject of Leaving a Legacy. The program’s full title – Leaving a Legacy – A New Age of Change, Challenge, and Strategic Leadership, has become my ‘flagship’ program since 2000, when I first began developing the Leaving a Legacy series for cities and counties.

It must first be said that Wisconsin is a remarkable state. I noted during the program (with apologies for mild pandering) that no matter where one turns in Wisconsin, every scene is suitable for a picture postcard.  I first visited as a 14 year old, and it is as beautiful as ever.

 Of greater importance was the response to several recommendations and gentle admonitions. During the programs I noted that in local communities…

–  Retirements are claiming much of the institutional memory that has taken years to accrue

–   Recruitment to and retention in local government is difficult when top talent tends to gravitate to business (although more people seem to now be seeking the stability of government as the economy struggles)

–  The work of local government is becoming more complex, with greater demand and more public scrutiny that ever before

–  Workloads are growing, budgets are shrinking, staff is being reduced, and pay for those remaining is often substandard

–   Morale issues abound as more people embrace a ‘bunker mentality’

–   Training and professional development is often the first to be cut yet is perhaps the best investment to gain new efficiencies and high productivity while ensuring quality services

 Local government is under siege and is struggling to provide basic services while budgets grow less capable of supporting the historic levels required to maintain health, safety, transportation, economic development, and a social network. It is apparent that Wisconsin mayors, city councils and city administrators are grappling with emerging challenges and are aggressively pursuing innovative and collaborative solutions. Among those I talked with, there is a deep commitment to cooperation and mutual problem solving that would be envied in many other states.

 I emphasized that there exists an “Action-Foresight Dichotomy” among many decision makers. By this, I mean that there is insufficient attention being paid to the future. Attention is typically paid to current operations – trying to get through each day, week or budget cycle with little activity being planned to build the kind of future desired by the community. The central question was, “Are you prepared for the kind of future you see for your community?” I also asked, “What makes a community, department or program relevant and consequential – now and in the future?” Measured relevance stems from impact; every department and program must be able to prove it has positive impact.

 For all local communities, the key question is, “What changes are you willing to make to ensure relevance in the future?” Change will occur no matter what we do, so we might as well plan for a desired future.

 The elected leaders I met in Wisconsin are a dedicated, resilient band of professionals. It is a state that has the tools and traditions to successfully address most critical challenges. For those who have not visited, it is a great place. I was honored to have the opportunity to share thoughts and hope to return soon.

 

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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