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Focus on the Long View

I have a natural antipathy toward politics, but more so toward the political parties that comprise America’s polarized landscape this election year. I typically avoid any discussion about subjects that hint of even slight political overtones, but a recent article provided enough encouragement to at least nibble around the edges.

Newsweek’s January 23 issue contains a cover story written by Andrew Sullivan that raises questions about the deeper contributions made by President Obama. While Sullivan admits his distaste for many actions that have and have not been undertaken, he points out that, to understand this president, one must understand the art of the long view.

When Obama was elected in 2008, the US was losing approximately 750,000 jobs per month, annualized growth had declined by close to 9%, and debt was at an all-time high (soon escalating further due to a $787 billion bailout). However, as Sullivan points out, since the low point in 2010, 2.4 million jobs have been added, which is more than during the eight years under Mr. Bush. In 2011, 1.9 private sector jobs were added while there was a net reduction of 280,000 public sector jobs. Overall, government employment has been reduced by 2.6 percent, more than the 2.2 percent during President Reagan’s first term when he was flexing his conservative muscle.

During the recent chaotic recession, the auto industry was bailed out but is now doing reasonably well, and most TARP funds loaned to banks have been paid back with interest. Sullivan seems to advocate and perhaps celebrate the common management approach of putting First Things First, which ranks #3 in Stephen Covey’s list of habits of highly effective people.

While Mr. Sullivan makes a reasonably strong case for all the good that has been done, he also makes a somewhat oblique case for embracing the value of the Long View. Peter Schwartz, co-founder of the global business network, twenty years ago made a potent case for scenario planning and a focus on a longer-term future in his book, The Art of the Long View (Doubleday, 1991). I share this view because the future is all that really matters. It is what the present is all about – providing a platform for sustainable growth, economic development, cultural normalcy, and social harmony that serves the common interest of all citizens. Sullivan describes a minor epiphany wherein he recognizes that maybe, just maybe, this president has a broader view and deeper commitment to the future than previously suspected. Perhaps he does indeed have an eye on national long-term strength and more sustainable well being while the nation is struggling to re-center after a horrific downturn.

Conor Friedersdorf, a writer for The Atlantic has responded (January 22) that, while much good has been done, there is a litany of negatives ranging from indefinite detention, the continuation of policy that allows spying on citizens, TSA expansion, escalation of drone warfare, reauthorization of the Patriot Act, and failure to prosecute Wall Street criminals. In all, he lists 14 negatives that he attributes to this president. All warrant discussion and critical analysis. But, I see a common theme that seems to elude far too many planners…the need to let some things go while working on broader, more essential foundational activities. Of course, the value of any and all such activities can be endlessly debated, and most will evoke deep emotion and even conflict.

But the broader view must turn to where we want this country to be in five, ten or twenty years. We cannot immediately fix the economy or produce millions of jobs overnight. These are long-term strategies that require a steady hand, clear vision, and an understanding of First Things First. Ratcheting down spending and taking a more conservative approach to how we buy, live and plan will allow most Americans to prepare for anticipated challenges. Pay down debt, save more, spend less, get healthy, collaborate more, and invest in things that have long-term value; these represent an approach that worked well for our parents and grandparents.

Gregg Easterbrook wrote The Progress Paradox (Random House) in 2004, with the subtitle, How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.  In it, he expresses the revelation that, while life has gotten remarkably better for virtually every American, something is missing. Expectations are off the charts, recreation seems to be the greatest motivator, and few seem to care much about the future. Myopic vision is endemic; we are fascinated with electronic gadgets, travel, staying in touch, and celebrity. Educational performance has declined, savings have been depleted and the search for gratification continues to escalate. Life is good, but, intuitively, many people sense they are on the wrong path.

Circling back to Sullivan’s article, he seems clear in his factual comparison of the eight Bush years against what was inherited by the current administration, and what has been done to date. Friedersdorf is just as accurate in his assessment and is not unkind to Sullivan, his former boss. The underlying message is essential for all public managers, regardless of party affiliation or beliefs. Those who are currently in control have an obligation to mobilize available resources to achieve the greatest long-term value. In this Blog, I have raised rhetorical questions about why the art of triage will become more critical. What has the greatest value, in a new park or additional school funding? More law enforcement or better roads? Safe water or more economic development activities?

Whoever wins in November inherits the collective past with all its detritus and promise. There must be more attention paid to the evolving world and America’s role in it. I predict that more manufacturing will return to these shores as costs soar overseas; we’ll see more foreign companies building plants here to be close to our markets; Europe will struggle and even decline due to broad mismanagement and societies that have vacationed and celebrated their histories for too long. A major shift is occurring; there is a huge game afoot and most don’t even recognize it.

Again I ask, ‘Where is your community?’ What is happening with re-centering and re-thinking various institutions? Is evolution proceeding in a thoughtful or chaotic manner? More than ever, the lead must be taken by state and local government, while political parties focus on the wrong things, eviscerate each other and escalate senseless blathering and blame. The great challenge is to make real progress while the national political spectacle once again distracts and de-unifies a struggling nation. This very serious game is ours to win or lose. Visionaries from either party can surely see that.

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 government 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 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  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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