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Vision and Common Sense

Gathering information for this Blog created a confusing torrent of points and counter points around the central theme of preparing for a challenging future. Going back to a decent article in the June 2008 issue of Public Management Magazine, I found a reasonable discussion on setting community priorities. The article, by Chris Fabian, Scott Collins and Jon Johnson, provided both rationale and structure for identifying and establishing priorities but also raised deeper questions about what constitutes true crisis and what is merely social evolution.

The opening question pertains to whether our top concern should be the fiscal crisis. Progress made during the intervening four and a half years since 2008 has not reduced the relevance of such queries but one might wonder if there are larger questions that might contribute to better governance and more thoughtful policy formulation. While the recession has created a service contraction in many communities, it has also raised questions regarding long-term value, contribution and what constitutes quality of community life. After 30 to 50 years of expansion, federal, state and local governments have experienced considerable contraction. This has hurt some constituencies that have grown comfortable with various support systems, but contraction has also raised questions about the ideal level of fiscal support for parks, recreation, the arts, preschool, halfway houses, and literally hundreds of services that have become elements of the American landscape. I don’t judge the merits of any program, but have spoken freely about the challenge of triage left to community leaders and elected officials. Theirs is no easy task.

The 2008 article in PM, Getting Your Priorities Straight, concluded that prioritization is a better way to deal with the fiscal crisis. My response when I first read it and as I read it again, is ‘duh!’ Much of the rationale shared by the authors was lifted from Hammer and Champy’s book Reengineering the Corporation (1993) and Osborne and Hutchinson’s The Price of Government (2004). Both are good books and have relevance today. However, retreading accepted management theory does not bring the necessary level of direction or solutions to current challenges or those expected the remainder of this decade. Yes, measurement is essential; yes, program value must be ascertained; and yes, outcomes must be desired and tracked.

My perspective has always been tempered by a commitment to simplicity. In Chapter 11 of my book, Planning the Future, I offer a simple diagram that will drive planning and priority setting for any program of government. The ultimate questions inherent in the model are, “What is too high that must be reduced? What is too low that must be increased? and , What is at acceptable levels that must be maintained?” By assigning metrics to every program element, subject matter experts can determine what needs to be done, by how much and by when. The question then becomes one of value and where the community (or agency) gains the most by achieving an established goal. Frankly, many pages of charts and academic models are attractive, but too time consuming, confusing and beside the point.

With global interconnectivity increasing, foreign labor costs rising, economies struggling, re-shoring escalating, and world governments looking for leadership, America stands at a crossroads. Rethinking old ways is essential. However, we need simple, thoughtful approaches to community development and economic vitality. New York Times writer David Brooks has championed the need for American communities and business leaders to broaden their perspective and embrace a vision of a nation fully capable of leading in the 21st Century. This nation is connected to the world, it has exceptional universities, and a deep commitment to research; it is creative, has rules of law, and protections for entrepreneurs; and, the U.S. has capital funds for new ventures, new enterprises, and new opportunities.

Planning at the community level must have two platforms. One is local/ regional; the other is national/ global. As a nation and in most communities, the greatest value will be derived from matching vision with practical planning and implementation. The question is, Who will connect the dots and not get caught up in the process? As globalization morphs into its next form, the U.S. and her communities have enormous opportunity to rethink government service delivery while fulfilling a broader agenda of national growth, stability and sustainable vitality. Recasting old systems and processes won’t deliver the desired outcomes. Let’s get on with the tasks required to rebuild infrastructure, strengthen the educational system, reform the tax code, and welcome back business that wants to come home. Triage must still be accomplished. However, it will be driven by a new vision of what communities truly need to build and sustain programs and systems for a challenging and transformative era.

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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