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The Search for Certainty

Two societal characteristics will become more prevalent in coming years. The world will face more ambiguity than ever before. What does this mean to our communities and leadership? Along with an escalating hunger for clarity and security, we will face a greater number of conflicting opportunities, needs, demands, and threats. The sheer number of variables is increasing exponentially. This phenomenon can be calculated through simple data analysis as well as being felt intuitively in every community.

What does this mean for public leaders and strategic thinkers? Due to the Internet and the enormous intrusion of public media into our lives, people are more aware than at any time in history. As awareness grows expectations grow, but fear and apprehension does as well. This has given rise to the second social characteristic that people are seeking – stability. During the period 1990 through around 2005, early and mid-career workers had a tendency to follow opportunity and money. Times were good and opportunity was abundant. There was a feeding frenzy of jobs, salaries, and benefits. This is no longer the case. Social scientists and more prescient economists predicted that this phase would end and it did. Today, the predominant need being expressed among working people in every community is the desire for stability.

For planners, managers and elected officials, this has great value. For many years to come, perhaps the remainder of this century, there will be a preference for stability. This will be accompanied by the desire for clarity, direction and truth. Strategic plans must therefore address major issues and challenges and clearly express impact. People want to know the truth. Those who believe that most people would rather remain ignorant will be rudely awakened to this evolving social attribute. I encourage you to gather factual data, analyze it for predicted impact, and share it openly with the community. Then ask, ‘Given the facts and circumstances, what do you (citizens) prefer?

The Illusion of Understanding

An element related to the discussion above is that people tend to create an illusion that they truly understand a phenomenon or event when in fact there is absolutely no grasp of what occurred and why. For partially predictable events, we know some of the factors and forces that are in play and that, given certain circumstances, a major event will (not may) occur. Again take tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics, fires, water system failures, etc. We have the data, we understand the potential and why the event is probable.

But for totally unforeseen events, the Black Swans, there is a tendency to explore, analyze, and poke at them until we create an understanding of why they occurred. One can say that the advent of penicillin was just a matter of time. Or air travel, television, computers and the Internet were all certain to occur given the level of creativity available. None of these major events could have been fully defined prior to their occurrence. While there were those who predicted aircraft and man’s ability to achieve flight, travel to the moon or explore the oceans in submarines (Jules Verne wrote about air, space and underwater travel in the latter part of the 1800s) many believed those predictions were utterly mad. We tend to return to early musings to gain the illusion that various events or developments were a predetermined factor in the progress equation. In my view, this is perfectly fine. Why should we care if we believe today that there was a predictable pattern of development? Black Swan theorist Nassim Taleb feels this is a human weakness that leads to errant focus on events that cannot possibly be predicted. I don’t see this as a weakness but an attempt to comprehend.

The only danger for public managers lies in either not investing the time to think about the future or thinking and preparing too much. As noted earlier, this is a precarious Catch-22.

Avoiding the Big Whoops!

Every reader will know about the tremendous growth in the southwestern United States. Cities in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Southern California have attracted millions of people over the past 40 years. City planners and zoning commissions have struggled to accommodate the rush of new construction but communities have enjoyed great prosperity as populations expanded and businesses relocated to open-armed chambers of commerce, city councils and warm climates.

There is one slight issue… water. Research is now generally conclusive that annual precipitation in that geographic area has been unusually high for about 100 to 150 years, and many years during that time have been considered drought years. Unfortunately, the region appears to be returning to historic norms, which over the past thousand years have been approximately 40 percent less than this recent period. This is not to say that there cannot be years with high rain and snowfall, but overall the trend seems to be downward. And, as a side note, the most recent full decade (2000-2009) is now officially the warmest decade on record, and 2009 tied with five other years as the second warmest year on record.

In addition, rationalists and naysayers are quick to discount historic data due to occasional precipitation surges. The winters of 2010-2011 were good years for both snow- and rainfall, allowing streams and reservoirs to regain much of their lost volume after several years of reduced precipitation. The Pacific jet stream created a classic El Nino weather pattern, bringing heavy rain and snow to Arizona and New Mexico, allowing a reduction of drought conditions. While this respite is welcome, it does not signal an end to drought issues. And, those issues weren’t helped by the enormous amount of rain produced in the East by Hurricane Irene. 

Recently recharged reservoirs and underground aquifers can provide water for some time, but fossil (non-recharging) aquifers will soon be depleted and, without sufficient rain and snowfall over a period of years, recharging aquifers will not recharge fast enough to accommodate demand. If the data is even remotely accurate, what will the consequences be for the communities and people in this large area of the United States? Without adequate water the alluring qualities of sunshine and annual warm weather will be less magnetic. The potential for escalating out-migration of both businesses and taxpayers is quite possible and certainly, expansion will be curtailed. Economic development will be inhibited and overall quality of life may suffer. This may seem a stark and rather gloomy assessment and some may question the data. But what if it proves to be accurate? Clearly it means that we made a very sizeable miscalculation that could have serious consequences.

Community leaders and elected officials cannot afford to ignore available data and must plan for the worst case scenario. I suggest planning for various eventualities but ALL stakeholders must have the opportunity to consider the data and its ramifications. One cannot blithely say, Whoops! and expect the community and deeply invested local business leaders to forgive and forget. When it comes to personal livelihood and business survival, a lot of negative energy can be generated in a short time.

Look at the data, consider various scenarios, and proceed with clarity, direction and as many facts as you can muster. If you understand social dynamics, you will understand that those who openly share information are typically accepted as the leaders.

Risk and Public Leadership

Community leaders and public must err on the side of disclosure. Citizens have a right to know the extent of issues and challenges. They pay taxes that support programs and services and their awareness and understanding is crucial to gaining their support. Predictable and quasi-predictable events distill down into If-Then scenarios: If this occurs, then this will be the probable impact. If we take these preventive actions, we will 1) avoid the event, 2) delay its occurrence or 3) moderate its impact.

 Public administrators and elected officials are central to every equation related to the provision of general operating services and to understanding and preventing potential harm to the community. They therefore must understand and accept a unique aspect of risk. One aspect of this risk deals with the personal risk associated with both identifying major potential events and preparing for them. My feeling is, if you are in a position of leadership, go ahead and take the point – walk out front. You are in a precarious position either way but greater strength comes from a leading position than from an avoidance or deflective position. Gather the data, check its veracity and share it with others in the community. There is greater risk in not taking this approach than in taking the lead. If there is danger that the dam will break in specific circumstances, a true leader will know the facts, understand the consequences, openly share the information and facilitate dialogue about strategic approaches to avoid or delay the event or reduce its impact. You don’t want someone to ask after a catastrophic event, Didn’t you know this might happen? Didn’t anyone warn you? “Well, er, yes, I think I might have heard something” just won’t do.

 The other facet of risk is really a corollary of the first. I meet many managers who take only ‘good news’ to elected officials. Or, they exclude harsh reality from plans and reports because elected officials accuse them of grandstanding to gain a greater share of the budget and might say that the numbers don’t reflect a truth the public is willing to hear. I am a hard liner. Professional public mangers know their stuff and, if they conduct accurate analysis and make valid conclusions that reflect harsh reality, they must then take this to elected officials and they must listen. Many are unwilling to ‘risk’ sharing bad news and, if they do, many officials do not listen.

 Elected officials must know the truth. Conversely, they need to actively seek the truth and to listen to experts who live their work every data. Take time to review the data, consider various scenarios, and proceed with clarity, direction and as many facts as you can muster. If you understand social dynamics, you will understand that those who openly share information are typically accepted as the leaders. Are you ready to step forward?

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 recent 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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