• Welcome to the FUTURE!

    The PublicFutures BLOG keeps you current on the latest research and thinking on major trends, policy shifts, 'hot topics', and evolving perspectives about the Future. Be sure to subscribe to the RSS or get email updates so you are kept up-to-date on all the latest posts.
  • Email Updates

  • Share the FUTURE with the world!

  • Learn more at our Company Site

Raving About Debt

Kevin Williamson, a crafty and talented writer for the National Review has recently presented a case for fear and dissention in his article The Other National Debt. Citing the currently published (but estimated) federal debt, amounting to $14 trillion, he piles on more numbers until the sheer numeric weight encourages flight to the hills and a simpler life in the deep woods.

Adding another $2.5 trillion for state and local government debt and up to $3 to $4 trillion to bail out bankrupt state pension funds, (which, in 31 states will be upside-down by 2025 even with six percent annual returns) the negative numbers accrue pretty fast. Professor Joshua Rauh of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University offers additional insight in his recent paper, Are State Public Pensions Sustainable?

We all understand that Social Security and Medicare are the big ticket items, having a combined liability of $106 trillion, based on numbers presented by Williamson. Even if less, the number is staggering. The most chilling aspect of this massive combined liability is that the Social Security trust fund actually has no money to back liabilities. It is pledged money; it is not a fund that holds assets or resources of any kind. Bruce Bartlett of Forbes has noted that an 81 percent tax increase would be necessary to meet these obligations alone.

Before you depart for the hills, please understand that many pundits forecast ‘doom for affect.’ Many of the TARP funds have been repaid and acquired assets alone have already returned over $21 billion in fees and dividends. Not to say the situation is not troubling, but there are other variables to consider. Even from a conservative perspective, there will be some growth. Foreign trade driven by global economic development will strengthen the national economy. There will be tax increases, but, based on other developed Western countries, our tax standards are low. Even small increases would begin to balance obligations…paying for updated infrastructure and desired services that otherwise would drain state and local coffers even further. There will be service consolidations and new efficiencies conceived by talented public employees and new collaborations with area businesses and non-profits. We will see more integrated planning and wiser use of available funds and, hopefully a reduction in the cost of foreign wars. In many ways, the current situation is good because it forces innovation, creativity and clear choices.

Debt is debilitating. It is a sign of profligate living and an unsustainable American lifestyle. We all know it has to change…so let’s change. I have surmised in this Blog that we can have superior quality of life for a lot less money – both at home and in our communities. It is a matter of recalibration. But that takes time and careful planning. Strategic thinking has never been more critical…

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. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Community Leaders and Public Administrators, will be available in fall 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

Government as a Learning Organization

A previous National Commission on the Public Service survey indicated that the best and brightest prospective new employees seek the following from their jobs:

-Challenging work

-Personal growth

-Pleasant working conditions

-Good social relations

-Job autonomy

-Service to society

-Job security

-Professional recognition

-Opportunity for advancement

-Pay and other financial rewards

-Prestige

 In itself, this list is not remarkable; these survey results are virtually identical to surveys conducted over the years by Fortune, Forbes, Inc. and other magazines as well as the Society for Human Resource Management, American Society for Training and Development, McKinsey, and various universities. What IS remarkable is that this particular survey was conducted in 1988. And, in the intervening 22 years, government has retreated from quality training and failed to establish potent learning environments where talented employees can thrive and contribute.

Of the cities and counties I visit, by far the most successful are those that value training and employee development. There is a commitment to development and in celebrating individual and group contributions. I find it deeply disturbing that so many public agencies choose to eliminate employee development and training programs at a time when productivity, efficiency and quality are critical. Job sharing requires cross training; multitasking to cover new service gaps requires higher knowledge and skill levels. These do not magically appear.

I propose that renewed effort be made to create a learning government by:

-Restoring employee training and education budgets

– Creating a new skills package for all employees

– Basing pay increases on skills and job performance, not time in grade

-Insisting on a new kind of problem-solving public manager…not paper passers

-Encouraging a new style of labor-management communication

 This list is not mine. It was originally published in the First Report of the National Commission on State and Local Public Service in 1992! I add the exclamation to emphasize that these recommendations were made 18 years ago and in the interim virtually nothing has changed OTHER than a further decline in employee and professional development. This must be addressed.

We have found that, done properly, employee development is not expensive, yet can positively transform the workplace. It can add stability while boosting efficiency, productivity, and quality. In turn, this can reduce costs and more than compensate for budget dollars dedicated to training and mentoring. 

Being prepared for current and future challenges requires competence in team development, greater communication and problem solving skills, and the ability to mobilize talent across departments and entire communities. High performing public agencies are committed to quality services. Outputs and outcomes are carefully planned and measured. Skill requirements are known and developed as a foundation for the future. What is happening in your agency or area of government? Is employee development and training a formal, respected, and integrated facet of the overall organization?  If not, why not?  After all these years, there has never been a better time.

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. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).