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Times are Changing…Slowly

The news media seems committed to stirring an already boiling pot, asserting in various forms that ‘another recession seems inevitable’ or that ‘attempts to revitalize the economy are just not working.’ How many times must it be said that the entire world is transforming? Tom Friedman (The World is Flat, 2005, Farrar, Straus & Giroux) tried (vainly, it appears) to explain the phenomenon of emerging cultures and economies. He expressed with remarkable clarity that times are changing. Fueled by enormous amounts of accessible information, other cultures are actively seeking growth and development. In that effort, many are stumbling and bumbling, but are dead set on positive change. This was beautifully presented in Fareed Zakaria’s book, The Post-American World (2008, W.W. Norton).

I continue to remind readers that the current transformation will take much of this decade. The volume of change required to move entire cultures from their previous, long-term status to a better place is enormous. And, change is a messy process. For some time, progress in the U.S. will come in smaller increments; major leaps forward will be few. This troubles most of us who have grown up experiencing massive change that introduced a cornucopia of opportunity. For early- to mid-career Americans, that opportunity is still there, but it is more elusive than ever. And, the competition for opportunity is staggering. Times are indeed changing…and, whether fast or slow, the pace seldom appeases.

Time has a way of bringing equal doses of humility, fear, anxiety and anticipation. In the fourth quarter of every year, as collective eyes turn toward the New Year, most of us feel this innate mix of emotion. This year is compounded by mid-term elections that promise to be, well, interesting. In the midst of so many converging variables is another problematic condition that reflects the difficulties associated with economic corrections.

As we turn toward 2011, the wild card is the proletariat, i.e. us folks. Most tend to get a bit conservative during difficult times and the savings rate (fluctuating between 4 to 6 percent) is evidence of that tendency. Companies, NGOs and government agencies are run by people, who, true to human tendency, order less, save more, hire less, and hold the line on just about everything. In the meantime, the economy can’t get traction…nobody is willing to risk too much. Is this bad?  No. But it is uncomfortable for those who want an immediate return to the halcyon days of rampant ‘anything goes’ prosperity. And a government that provides all the services we feel entitled to.

The old saying, ‘Moderation in all things,’ is applicable here. Patience is another virtue that seems to have been misplaced or eroded by political polarity so intense it has become both comical and frightening. My message remains clear: focus on the future, with moderation and a balanced approach; understand that government policy merely provides a framework for recovery.

In a single edition of a local newspaper, I recently found two conflicting articles. One lamented program reductions and expressed great concern for constituents who would bear the brunt of those lost services; the other advocated service reductions as various cities try to avoid bankruptcy. You can’t have it both ways. If the community desires various programs or levels of service, it must agree to pay the cost. The media must express more clarity about choices. Finding a thoughtful means to express those choices will continue to challenge decision-makers.

I continue encourage more emphasis on the common interest…what is best for every facet of the community. With eroding infrastructure, underfunded education, and the enormous dual challenges of Social Security and Medicare, now is not the time for hubris and posturing. Now is the time for collaboration and leadership. Decide what the community needs to sustain core service levels and maintain quality of life – and take time to define what that means. Then, and only then, can decisions be made about cost of service and what programs will sustain the community through a tedious and often confusing transformation.

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, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 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).

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