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Excused From the Table

Three years ago I had the opportunity to keynote the national EPA Conference on Water System Sustainability, held in Atlanta.  During the conference, I met with members of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) who made it clear that the federal government could no longer fund local water systems at previous levels. Even more disheartening, CBO staffers noted that many programs related to water, wastewater, health, recreation, and community development that had enjoyed historically strong support would see reduced funding. I was encouraged to share this news with local officials during my travels and work with cities and counties. When I suggested that this was the role of professionals in D.C., I was told that it was not politically expedient to share such bad news and that the CBO and other Washington agencies had been told to avoid any public announcement.

For those who subscribe to Bloomberg News, you may have seen the February 28 article reporting that Stockton, California has filed for bankruptcy. The article reported that Governor Brown refused to discuss the situation, which in many ways signals the current fiscal environment, but also the growing schism between federal, state and local government. While some states are seeing some revenue growth due to a broad (but weak) US economic recovery, aid to cities and counties continues to decline. In a very real sense, it is ‘every man for himself.’ There is some humor here, in that this phrase can be partially attributed to the 1924 Our Gang short film of the same title, in which the Gang generates revenue through a combination athletic club and shoe shine emporium. The ensuing high jinks resemble many contemporary economic development ploys, most of which fail to embrace reality.

As stark illustrations of actions taken to avoid bankruptcy, Pontiac, MI has eliminated its police force and Cleveland, OH has demolished thousands of already condemned structures in a effort to sustain or improve property values. Unfortunately, for every reported action taken by local government, there are hundreds of critical actions taken to reduce costs while preserving historic values and service levels. As noted many times in this Blog, there is a major re-centering occurring in America. For close to 60 years, money has flowed freely, and was particularly apparent during the early days of New Federalism, during which block grants flourished.

The latest incarnation of New Federalism is the largely unannounced policy to reduce funding to the locals until they are forced to either forego or reduce service, or find new revenue sources. Whether by increasing taxes, private-public partnerships, new enterprise mechanisms, or bake sales, local government is now facing a major shift in operating philosophy, described in my book, Planning the Future. That is, communities must decide what is essential and what should be eliminated, reduced, maintained or expanded. Demand is NOT declining, so the prospect of conflict is high as expectations grow for both service expansion and reduction. Within five years, even if local government expands to meet demand, this trend will fully bloom into more frugal government, better strategic planning, and highly accountable public operations.

The number of communities that are tamping down budgets is enormous. Not to say I am an advocate of reducing services while demand for those services is expanding, but I do believe in careful planning that attends to programs and services that serve the greatest common good. The key is to get ahead of the curve and begin the process now, before community fabric is so frayed that recovery is difficult. Through proper planning, public leaders can recognize critical issues, evaluate impact, establish goals, then identify strategies that allow remediation and define new options. Now is not the time to blame state and federal government but to recognize universal trends that affect all communities. This is a new era. Most communities are facing local realities that are forcing them to confront conditions that seem too harsh or punitive. This new era is neither temporary nor nebulous. And, it is not punitive. It is the new norm…at least for quite some time.

Consolidation, collaboration, and contraction require careful planning. What is happening locally? Are grand plans being made that cannot possibly be funded long-term? Are strategic plans grounded on carefully articulated issues and are the impacts of those issues clearly stated?  Are there clear discussion points and decision points? Have a series of If-Then scenarios been developed by local stakeholders and government leaders? Do you know what’s at stake for every decision? Time will tell…

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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More Truth and Consequences

I may have gotten in a bit deep last week when discussing the continual and unrelenting global warming joust that permeates the Internet. While impact and consequence remain my focus, there are those who take issue with both data and their interpretation. I continually encourage the investigation of outcome- the actual changes that have occurred and are occurring this year. Of course, causation remains essential if we are to intervene with any hope for mitigation. But it appears to be a separate debate.

Continuing my review, I again read Singer and Avery’s 2007 bestselling book, Unstoppable Global Warming, which is a very thoughtful and insightful repudiation of many myths and overstatements associated with climate change (Rowman & Littlefield, updated in 2008). I also reviewed various reports from 2011, especially those addressing patterns of drought and desertification.

I first look for what is actually occurring before I seek causative data because it would appear that confronting reality begins with actual affect. For instance, in early December the Associated Press reported that most of Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and much of Kansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Arizona experienced lengthy patterns of exceptional, extreme, or severe drought during 2011 and that the pattern would likely continue through much of 2012, depending on what happens during the rainy season, beginning in June. The article, by Francisco Salazar and Olga Rodriguez, reported that farms that typically harvest 10 tons of corn and beans from Mexican fields were getting only one ton. The hardest hit Mexican states had received only 12 inches of rainfall, resulting in 2.2 million acres of crops lost and the deaths of 1.7 million farm animals directly related to heat and drought. Among the poorest, starvation and malnutrition are constant companions. The agricultural impact to U.S. states is just as distressing, especially when coupled with huge wildfires across windswept prairies made tinder dry by the relentless heat.

This is but one example of reviewing what is, rather than debating causation, natural cycles, and the value of policy remedies that may or may not drive up business costs. Singer and Avery cite the 1,500-year cycle that seems to occur regardless of what else is happening on Earth. Gerard C. Bond of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, was the lead author of the paper published in 1997 that postulated the theory of 1,470-year climate cycles in the Holocene, mainly based on petrologic tracers of drift ice in the North Atlantic. Interestingly Singer and Avery cited Willi Dansgaard of Denmark, Hans Oeschger of Switzerland, and Claude Lorius of France, who also postulated that the Earth’s climate has naturally fluctuated for millions of years and that overlaying anthropogenic causation is foolish. The book cites considerable data and is well-annotated. I like this book. What I don’t like is the disregard for what is occurring and how it is impacting countries, economies and cultures. Whatever the causation, things are happening and they are happening fast.

Another little conundrum is why annotated and well-sourced data found in this book is different than data found in other books and papers…all with reputable scientific citations. As my friend Mike said in a recent comment, who and what can we believe? My answer? Begin with what is actually occurring and how it impacts the community, state, region and country, and sort out causation later. It is what it is.

Can interpretation of data vary? Certainly. But outcomes are events or conditions that can be witnessed. More and more frequent snow- or rainfall, more violent weather, increasing drought, melting glaciers, and warming oceans are all measureable events or conditions. In the Arctic, there is either more sea ice, less sea ice or an equal amount of sea ice. Once this is determined, we can determine the impact, whether positive, negative or neutral. As future thinkers, government officials and managers need more data about what IS and to consider various highly probable outcomes that might prove harmful to their communities. To haggle about who said what and what caused what may be entertaining, but erodes public confidence, wastes resources, and distracts decision makers from their most essential work – planning the future.

Wise people will ultimately address causation and prevention. But they must first recognize impact and consequence and work collaboratively to mitigate affect. Who is right is not important, but what is right is critical at a time when every resource and every minute counts.

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).

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).

Embracing the New Year

As I begin this New Year, I am drawn to a comment made by the extraordinary Christopher Hitchens, who succumbed to cancer on December 15. With his typical mix of droll wisdom, disdain and brilliant articulation, he promised to address the prospect of death as an active participant- one who ‘did’ death almost as an elective activity and not as a passive recipient of fate. If you haven’t read much of Hitchins, I encourage you to do so…but be prepared for his incandescent honesty and towering intellect.

Regarding 2012, it seems that there is a message for us in Hitchins’ final joust. The underlying message is about facing inevitabilities with passion and spirit, while also finding the will to resist the malignant forces building against humanity. Believing we can change the future is fundamental to changing it. And, for the most part, it is not too late.

Just the number 2012 brings a mix of apprehension and allure that is both troubling and somewhat mystical when compared to other years. It an important election year that bridges a confluence of cultural, social, generational and economic norms, but is also a reference point for the 2,500 year-old Mayan calendar that predicts the end of an age. If we thought 2007-2011 were landmark years, we haven’t seen anything yet.

As Europe struggles with solvency, it also struggles with a much deeper and more complex challenge: a formula for accommodating evolving globalization, religious nationalism, cultural integration and historic patterns of dissent. So much is in flux in Europe and throughout the Pacific Rim, it is difficult to comprehend. Add the rapid development of India, Brazil and Argentina, the continued success of Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and a growing chasm between developed and developing countries, you have the ingredients for chaos, growth, prosperity, conflict, and rampant confusion.

As we analyze current status, we see declining unemployment, growing consumer confidence, and more decisiveness among EU members. There seems to be greater commitment to long-term stability in Pacific Rim and European countries and several major economies continue to provide the foundation for slow but steady growth. Globally, an emerging middle class will steadily improve markets throughout this decade, with slightly more upward acceleration during 2012. Not to say we’ll turn the corner, but a turning point will be more apparent within 12 months.

Technology will drive progress and global integration in more ways than we can possibly imagine. People are talking; entire cultures are now able to bear witness to atrocity, innovation, celebration, and misfeasance in real time. People seem to know things, care about things, desire things, and understand more than ever. How this flight from ignorance will drive the future is hard to fully imagine, but the amount of globally generated social energy is enormous.

Outdated institutions (U.S. Post Office) will continue to fade while new institutions (ASEAN) will seek broader economic growth and stability. Prepared and prescient businesses and public organizations will morph and prosper; those refusing to interpret patterns of change will struggle and many will die. This New Year is a transitional year. While many are tired, confused, and enamored with the past, those who embrace new challenges and seek to understand new opportunities will reap tremendous rewards during this decade.

The huge IF that is associated with the previous statement depends on a single element: leadership. Far too many leaders in our political, government and corporate institutions are driven by various combinations of avarice, control, power, ego and a compulsion to perpetuate historic norms. The great thing about Generations X and Y is that they, for the most part, seek newness. Among this very large complement of society, many realize that capitalism does not necessarily equate to avarice and that ego can be a good thing. Most seem to be driven by a sense of community, collaboration, and living a ‘good’ life. If they can establish these elements as essential norms while energizing an entirely new culture that preserves the best American values, there may be a more positive future than some would predict.

It is time to understand that foolish decisions, greed and myopic planning led to the current predicament. Virtually all celebrated economists encourage patience during this 6 to 10 year re-centering period. Careful, deliberate, and prudent community planning, along with deeper market understanding and commitment to value will generate growth. Critical questions center around what constitutes leadership and what this country needs during such a transitional period. Vision, insight, purpose and planning must integrate with value, equity and the common interest. The ultimate questions must pertain to what is in the best common interest of all citizens, not only in this country but in every culture. Who will work for the common good? Who will confront reality and have the courage to speak the hard truth?

As 2012 dawns, keep these questions, and your own private answers, in mind. Above all, believe in the future…it will be challenging but bright for those who choose to make it so.

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).

Programmed, Tactical Failure

As a creature of habit, you will generally find me on Sunday mornings watching NBC’s Meet the Press with host David Gregory. For several months, it has for me devolved into a flagellation of sorts, with me hoping for some rational discussion and any indication there is someone willing to raise enough hell to move things off dead center. Listening to Senators Kerry (D-MA) and Kyl (R-AZ) this past Sunday I felt like throwing a shoe at the television.

To compound matters, even with respectful commentary from Mike Murphy, Dee Dee Myers, Eugene Robinson and Ed Gillespie, there was no one blasting the total ineptitude or morale failings of the ‘Debt Reduction Super Committee.’ Rather, within a context of charming jousts and disarming ideology, these ‘roundtable’ pundits shared their perspective without focusing on a very clear truth. Driven by a total disregard for what is best for the country, this committee continues to neglect the very good work of last year’s Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici commissions, which made almost identical, very difficult but very well researched and prudent recommendations. From both, we heard admonitions to abandon the Bush tax cuts, reduce discretionary government spending, and begin reeling in entitlements. Both suggested economic programs that would begin the process of revitalizing the workplace and laying the foundation for job creation. Having read both committee reports, I can recommend them as thoughtful, no-nonsense, tough reviews of what must be done and why.

As noted in this commentary some weeks ago, decisions are being made without regard for America’s near- and long-term future. Recommendations are driven by power and greed, both of which provide the foundation for modern American politics. The era of representing the highest and best common interests of citizens is over. Sadly, it may never again flourish as it did in the mid-1900s.

Business and banks are sitting on enormous cash hoards. At a time when investment is crucial for growth, there is reluctance to open the coffers. Why? Simply because confidence in long-term solutions is lacking, gridlock has demonstrated an almost total absence of congressional leadership, and the global economy is being torpedoed by historic disregard for prudent spending, and even more prudent living. Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and other European Union countries have run aground on shoals of indifference and profligacy. A 60-year history of letting others pay their way has bred generations of narrow thinkers, vacationers, and apologists. Theirs is a platform of reparations and disregard for a global future. It is myopic and toxic, but more critically, it is dangerous.

The Debt Reduction Committee has failed. Even with a clear and somewhat simple task that involved embracing former Republican positions to which Democrats now adhere, committee members reversed field and refused to compromise. Behind the scenes, the Beltway word is that dissention is contrived by strategists who are counting on twelve more months of unrest to unseat the president. Not by any measure a strategy born from a commitment to the common wellbeing of citizens, but rather, it is a tactic driven by calculated degradation of this country for political gain.

The U.S. doesn’t have another year to dally. Europe is in a lifeboat reaching for the oars. Both China and India will see contracting economies beginning in 2012 and other stronger economies (Brazil, Germany, Canada, and Argentina) cannot carry the load. Newsweek’s Niall Ferguson has just commented that, to grow, the U.S. economy must enjoy robust exports at a time when Europe is contracting into an economic death spiral. We can’t count on either sales or loans much longer.  That game is almost over.

So, here’s the deal.  The U.S. can grow, albeit slowly, if it can weather the current storm, which will last for another three to five years.  Count on it. In this space, I have noted that the recession or its first cousin will linger for much of this decade. The U.S. gross federal debt is approximately 100 percent of GDP. Just four years ago, it was 62 percent. It is growing, with little sign of slowing, unless decisions are made NOW. Based on the abject failure of Congress and this ridiculous Debt Reduction Super Committee, I suggest we continue working at the local level to build, grow, encourage and collaborate. Local economies can surge during slow economic times. Yes, it will be slow, but forward movement is possible and can be accomplished with careful planning and thoughtful resource allocation. We can do this, but it is time to stop expecting much help from Washington.

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).

Information Overload

During a recent program I mentioned that over 4,000 new books were published every day and that there had been more new information created in the past 30 years than in the previous 5,000. The accelerating pace of change and emerging data streams are converging to deluge even the most prolific reader. While new information is good, one must wonder if it really matters. And, if some of this information torrent matters, how does one determine what to discard and what to retain?

Valiantly attempting to keep pace with new information on the economy and to understand what exactly happened over the past four years, I recently elected Free Fall – America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy by Joseph Stiglitz (W.W. Norton, 2010) and All the Devils are Here – The Hidden History of the Financial Crises, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera (Penguin Books, 2010). Certainly, there are hundreds of other books on the same or similar subjects, but Stiglitz and McLean are hard to beat.

The real issue comes from the volume of information and exceptional reporting found in both books. What is one to do with such information? Other than understand what occurred, there is also the tendency to get agitated over the stupidity, arrogance and avarice that fueled the recent (and subtly continuing) financial meltdown. If even 10 percent of the information is accurate, and I’m certain it is carefully annotated, we have been led onto a slippery slope that leads to a very dark place. The quest for power is only exceeded by the level of greed that underpins this country’s most celebrated and iconic financial and political institutions. For the common citizen and typical community, there are few options – at least not in the short term.  And none are without risk.

Most communities and families can hunker down, save more, pay down debt, and do without. But this is occurring in juxtaposition with extreme corporate earnings and Wall Street profits (and salaries) that exceed the levels of four year s ago. Though teetering on the brink of a second recession (or deeper continuation of the first one), politicians dither and joust while Wall Street wallows in enormous profits – all at the expense of those who have returned to savings as the best preparation for an uncertain future.

On other fronts, the new book, The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change, by Philip Conkling, Richard Alley and Wallace Broecker (MIT Press, 2011), provides exceptional reporting on climate change in Greenland – probably Earth’s best barometer for the future affects of global warming. Reported without pedantic environmental fervor or overstated science, the data offers a potent review of what we might expect IF. Of course, the IF pertains to mankind’s continuation down a path of rampant fossil fuel utilization, which, though slowing in the U.S., is rapidly increasing in most developing countries (India, China, and Brazil to name a few). This, and other similar books, would appear to offer admonitions similar to the old Fram oil filter commercial, in which the mechanic simply noted that, ‘You can pay me now or pay me later.” Of course, if you chose later, your costs for that new engine would be MUCH higher than an oil change and new filter.

European economics, global warming, the war in Afghanistan, escalating transportation costs, declining infrastructure, eroding pension funds, community security and economic doldrums are all subjects with enormous impact on America. Add these to education issues, crime rates, the number of people incarcerated in America, declining immunization rates, the rise of gang violence, growing air traffic incidents, and literally a hundred other issues and you can easily reach a threshold of despondence, apathy, fear, or anger. Perhaps a combination of all four better expresses the mood of those who comprise the OWS movement. 

Communities don’t have a choice…they must rally to the common good and to the futures they prefer. That takes insight, prescience and leadership. It will require uncommon courage to do what is right while others are raiding the cash box in D.C., but local control and local progress is the key to this country’s future, as it has always been. There is no time to lose…we need progress now, as we approach 2012. It promises to be another difficult year, with many variables out of our control. The key is to control what you can, understand what is uncontrollable and create a culture of integrated, shared resources that brings a new age of efficiency, quality and sustainability. This is the path of progress…more consolidation, more shared resources, more collaboration and a focus on the long view.

We have the skills and expertise. The question is, ‘Do we have the will, commitment and courage to lead?’  The next 10 years will not be like the previous 10 years.  Do current leaders understand this?  Again, the new norm will not mirror the old norm.  Times are a-changin’ and we need the wisdom to understand this and become architects of the next phase of American life.

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).

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).