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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).

Past the Tipping Point

With the summer more than half over, things have not been going as well as America had hoped. I would imagine that this observation is shared by many readers and has the potential to recast earlier feelings of optimism. To be truthful, these are troubled times. While exacerbated by Washington’s political gridlock, the greater fear is that they portend a future governed by small-minded powerbrokers who fail to grasp the complex needs of a great and growing nation. Decision-making should never be about power, influence and insuring one’s financial future after politics. It must be about serving the common good…the common interest. This has not been the case in Washington.

 At the state level, governors Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Jerry Brown (D-CA) have repeatedly and strongly stated that their states must begin to make very tough decisions. They believe that society must live within its means and that every service to which we’ve become accustomed must no longer be an entitlement. Both have also said that they would do what is right even if unpopular and the citizens could agree to a new level of fiscal restraint or vote them out of office. Leaders at the city and county level are leaning the same way- making the best possible choices to preserve their communities.

 Watching the wags and nincompoops who blather on talk and ‘news’ shows, it is clear to those paying attention that political guests and their advisors spend most allotted air time bashing the other political party. Blaming, deflection and outright lying have reached a level not seen in US history. And, there is no sign of abatement. At the federal, state and local level, common business sense must become the rule. It is always difficult to reel in emotional and fiscal entitlements. The longer they continue, the more vital they become to the recipient; and, the more they will be defended with anger and irrational exuberance.

 For rational people, it is clear that you can’t spend what you don’t have. While credit is available, too much too often leads to a deep, dark hole. The rule is simple: If the American people want a service cornucopia, it comes with a cost; government cannot keep borrowing to maintain programs and services (even those held dear) if revenue can’t support predicted need as the population grows. At some point (now), the country must decide what is important and what it can afford at current revenue levels, then ask society what else it is willing to contribute. It must not be about political control; it must be about a properly envisioned and managed government.

 Intelligent budget decisions need to be made now. Even though Congress has raised the debt ceiling 11 times in the past 10 years with no ill effect, the recent posturing associated with such classic housekeeping was unconscionable. Predictably, it has ignited a serious stock market decline – one that could erode many of the gains made since 2009. In terms of debt reduction, cutting small, targeted programs will not impact the nation’s debt. A broad and prudent plan is required – similar to the Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Commission Report that published thoughtful but tough recommendations in December 2010 (similar recommendations were presented by the Debt Reduction Task Force of the Bipartisan Policy Center, in the Domenici-Rivlin Report, November 2010). Or, if you want a rush from good but frightening data, read Peter Coy’s analysis in the August 1-7 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek. Talk about a well-document dose of reality!

 This is not a time for party politics, nor a time to support officials who are not fully dedicated to the long-term common interest of all citizens. This is a time to determine what this society deems important enough to pay for and what constitutes a practical vision that preserves American ideals and the opportunity to build a sustainable economic future. There are many paths forward; isn’t it time we chose one?

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).

Cultural Shifts and Transformations

Globalization has often been misconstrued and badly interpreted by those from whom we expect wisdom and guidance. Embracing a world that is becoming more ‘flat’ requires an understanding of this metaphor along with a deep understanding of cultural anthropology, history, economics and social psychology. On virtually every continent, there are significant changes taking place – some that will reshape the world order during the 21st Century.

Recent evolutions (not necessarily revolutions) in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries grew their roots in economic, cultural and technological soil. Populations there are young, frustrated, and thirsty for opportunity. While many in these populations are un- or moderately educated, they are becoming more aware of the greater world…what it is, what it offers, and how it can improve their lives. According to author Fareed Zakaria (The Post-American World, 2008), it represents ‘the rise of the rest’ as opposed to the decline of America. In fact, it has little to do with this country…or does it?

In many ways, the U.S. represents the planet’s most potent beacon of freedom, self-reliance, and self-determination. It is here that people are able to pursue life in an environment forged through the pursuit of liberty and self- actualization. It is here where people have the right to choose, elect, joust, and debate. But sadly, it is in this country that we also have the right to ignore, fantasize, neglect, and pretend. As often noted here, we have ridden this golden pony for a long time and the plot has turned. Given all that this country does and can do, will it be able to apply the brakes, make difficult decisions, and pull out of the current spin before it is too late? The whole world is watching. What will those witnesses see? What will our message be?

More and more, we are squabbling over the asinine. Good economics says that some tax increases can benefit the economy and culture while sowing seeds of greater equity. Government spending is necessary, but must be sensible and address commerce, security, and socio-cultural development. Immigration is a good thing, but must be regulated and have policies applied according to the current century- not driven by antiquated fears and provincial values. Globalization is not only good for America, it is the new order of things. We need to be more involved globally, not less involved (not advocating a boost in foreign aid…merely engaging with global markets and cultures). This must not be a political debate but a reasoned discourse that provides the underpinning for a prosperous future. There is far too much energy being expended on preserving historic norms rather than on developing modern policy platforms that allow the U.S. to refocus on leading the future through innovation and vision.

Over ten years ago, I began encouraging government leaders to confront reality; to become truth tellers above all else. We are now seeing the hand being forced by unbalanced budgets and calls for massive reductions in spending. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has been walking point on significant budget reductions requiring fewer personnel, reduced and eliminated programs, salary cuts, pension concessions, and a call to do more with less. He has also made it clear that the revenue is just not there to support all the programs and services to which citizens have become entitled.

While decision makers are now (still) diddling around with 12% of the federal budget, the remainder is capsizing the country. Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense are again being ignored this year while ‘conversations’ about various aspects of elusive ‘common ground’ are being held. While it is a sham, voters have historically excised those who have spoken truth about debt and sacrifice. The historic path to reality is littered with those who dared to share real data and suggest bold action. One of the most chilling examples was the honesty of Walter Mondale who, in 1984 addressed the need to raise taxes, then handily lost the presidential election.  Ronald Reagan promised reduced government and no new taxes and won a resounding victory. He and Congress raised taxes 11 times in 8 years. Expedient or dishonest?

Governor Christie has taken the initiative during a transformative time. If he is able to restore fiscal balance and reduce government while maintaining essential services, he may enjoy popular support and achieve political tenure. He is talking truth, sharing data, and providing direction. If the results are forthcoming, he may have provided a path forward as the U.S. begins to restore restraint, transparency and honest dialogue to the political arena. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker seems to be following a similar path, even with current difficulties with unions and his calls for eliminating collective bargaining.

At least 30 states are in some stage of facing budget realities and the challenge of balancing the dueling demands of need, entitlement, expectations, and independence. We are not seeing ‘hard times.’ We are experiencing a return to realism that will take a decade to transform this nation. However difficult and unfair the sacrifices seem, they will leave this country stronger and better prepared for global competition and an integrated world. Buckle up. It will get wild for a few years.

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).

Taking the Lead…

Looking forward, through 2011 and well into this new decade, it seems apparent that leaders and leadership will be in great demand. Not to say there has been insufficient leadership in the past, but only that we must now fully embrace the enormous value and importance of leadership during the 21st century.

There appear to be four fundamental attributes required for sustained leadership. These go far beyond expertise and experience…they go to the heart of why we follow one person over another. The first attribute is the ability to engage others in shared, meaningful dialogue and experiences. These are situational leaders who, with even hand and clear voice, convert chaos into energetic commitment, demonstrating the wisdom of embracing change and opportunity. Second, the most riveting leaders are able to speak to issues with compelling, rational ideas in a manner that defuses or rallies, energizes or justifies. At various times, someone must step to the point and, with great harmony, offer sensible solutions and clear direction.

As we move further into this second decade, strong values and integrity will become more meaningful. This is the third attribute and is essential to address potent challenges that will assault every aspect of global society. There will be many opportunities to abdicate values and to take the easy, less arduous and honorable path. We need leaders who will do what is right…and who do not delay, excuse or pass to future generations legacies that will ensure decline, default and despair.

And finally, a leader’s most critical attribute is the ability to adapt while applying creative thought and energy to adversity. These are the personalities who understand the context of current difficulties, but are able to persevere and emerge stronger. These leaders are fearless but thoughtful, hardy but understanding, and willing to do what is necessary to ensure a better future. Where some would cease to grow or fail to engage, these men and women will face the future with a spirit forged in the cauldrons of economic turmoil, political gridlock, and a transforming world order. They are the new leaders…direct, open, honest, experienced, and committed to positive, collaborative change.

As noted previously, nothing matters more than the future. What kind of leaders will we be? More importantly, if we become the leaders described above, what legacies will we leave to our communities?

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).

Predicting the Future

I am often drawn into discussions about predicting the future. Without reservation I concur that much of the future is unpredictable. However, from a planner’s viewpoint, given the correct data, we can predict many things. Why do I say this? Let me relate a short story.

During a program I presented to a group of highly technical public employees, an engineer quite heatedly expressed his frustration with the program, stating that predicting the future was impossible and that they were wasting their time. I asked his permission to explore his view through a series of simple questions. Reluctantly, he agreed. I proceeded to ask him the following questions:

Question 1: In your community, if the population grows by 30 percent over the next decade, do you think water consumption will increase, decline or remain the same? He replied that water consumption would probably rise.

Question 2: If the population increases by 30 percent in that same time period, do you think that, without any new alternatives, traffic congestion in the city core will increase or decrease? He replied that it would most likely increase. By then, there was a faint change in his demeanor.

Question 3: With the increased traffic, would you say that street surfaces and reflective striping will deteriorate faster, slower or at about the same rate? By then he was squirming a bit but answered that roads and streets and various painted surfaces would probably deteriorate faster.

I looked at him and, with some drama said, “Well, you can predict the future!” Along with some laughter there was obviously renewed vigor among participants. Being a good sport, he joined in an active discussion about how knowledge and data can drive predictability in many areas of public management. Within a few minutes, the audience had grasped the basis of my belief about the value of predictability.

Practical Predictions

As populations grow, we can predict an increase in service demand – more licenses, building permits, immunizations, inspections, water use, solid waste and waste water generated, etc. We can also predict detrimental impact – if water supplies are contaminated (potential for cholera, typhoid), restaurants are not inspected (food poisoning via salmonella, e-coli) or immunization levels drop below 65 percent among children in the kindergarten – third grade age group (epidemics of preventable childhood disease, such as diphtheria, whooping cough, measles and mumps). Those in law enforcement can provide equations proven accurate over time that reflect the need for more patrol officers, more jail cells, correctional officers and even more judges if a city expands significantly. History provides sound health, epidemiological, engineering, public safety, administrative, and a variety of other data that, in the right combination, promotes predictability.

The point I am making is that it takes a change in perspective to become a strategic thinker and futurist. As public leaders and managers begin to blend their tendency to ‘operationalize’ every aspect of government with a process of strategic thought, they will gain an entirely new ability to predict, plan and budget for predictable and already known events. Those who argue that the future is unpredictable forget that forecasting occurs annually as budgets are being prepared. The level of predictive expertise and foresight in public agencies is enormous…it merely has to be tapped.

Learning to Lead as a Strategic Thinker

Strategic thought, when taken as a whole, is a combination of vision, reflection, analysis, honest appraisal, and a willingness to suggest bold action. It requires dedication to look over the horizon, consider the value or possible impact of major events or situations and facilitate collaborative approaches that improve process, product, or quality of life. Some encourage planning for its value as a means of celebrating accomplishments and contributions. Others advocate planning as a management tool that both calculates and ensures measured performance. And many practitioners would merely say strategic planning is the best means of integrating tangible current reality and projected future needs with the conceptual aspirations of a multidimensional community. Good planning deals with the finite while considering the enormously diverse expectations of a nation, state, county or city. To say the least, it is important; it is vital; and it is often difficult.

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, will be available in fall 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).

A Crisis of Confidence?

Many recent periodicals seem to express similar sentiments when describing the lack of energy associated with ‘the recovery.’ Most cite a lack of consumer confidence as the primary missing ingredient, and seem especially exasperated when noting that interest rates are low, housing costs are at all-time lows and deals are available everywhere. Further, there are signs that business is picking up, albeit slowly. The Kiplinger Letter still forecasts a stronger second half, with some promise of a mild acceleration into Q1 2011. So, why aren’t the good citizens out buying?

In virtually every geographic area of the United States, new rounds of budget reductions are being contemplated in state and local government. Programs are being reduced or eliminated, hours are being limited, layoffs continue and furloughs are commonplace. Whether the current economic doldrums are caused by a lack of confidence is debatable. Fundamentally, people are hunkered down, waiting…

Traveling as much as I do, I have an opportunity to visit with a lot of talented, thoughtful people. For the most part, confidence is not the issue. Rather, what appears to be happening is an awakening; there is a dawning realization that we have come to expect far too much, desire more than necessary, and, just perhaps, don’t need anything right now. I have suggested many times in this Blog that the economy is ‘re-centering.’ A primary element of this process is facing the reality that perhaps the car is acceptable for another three years, the house will suffice for another ten years, and we just don’t need that four-wheeler or motor home. For America’s vast middle class, the past three decades has been a time of plenty. Most have homes, furnishings, cars, TVs, and all types of assorted toys. It would appear that many folks are achieving a new comfort level with what they have and are delaying any expenditure that is not essential.

For our communities, the news is good and bad. Economic growth and vitality will be subdued for some time. Conservative communities that have great strategic and financial planning, are exceptionally efficient, and committed to resource integration will weather the storm. Those with efficient operations, interagency cooperation, and well-trained employees are most capable of understanding how this re-centering impacts the community and how it will ultimately produce a stronger, more collaborative, and sustainable culture.

Leadership requires an understanding of this phenomenon. It is difficult to address all the immediate challenges while embracing new strategies based on evolving social, economic, and cultural norms. As noted to a group in Washington State last week, state and community leaders must look to the broader horizon to seek an understanding of what is occurring and how it must be addressed. Doing the same old things will not work and will merely produce overstated expectations.

Keep in mind that during a transformative time people need clarity, direction, truth, and a calm, nurturing leadership style. Elected and appointed officials, along with managers at every level must understand that we have entered a new era. It is happening on our watch and will play out according to how we address current challenges while preparing for a future that could very well be positive, more sustainable, and governed by prudence. Focus on planning, resource sharing, consolidation, and employee development. Strategic thinkers who have a vision for a ‘community of the future’ will prevail. Are you prepared to lead in this new age?

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, will be available in fall 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).

Public Employee Compensation

Recent Fox News commentary about compensation turmoil in Bell, California reached an almost manic crescendo, with pundits making hugely misleading generalizations about the compensation of all public employees. Frankly, it made me ill.  While no one can condone a Chief Administrative Officer of a city with 40,000 residents making $787,637 annually or an Assistant City Manager making $376,288, this is far from common. In fact, it is so outrageously uncommon it is outside the realm of reality. In the Associated Press report, it appears that, in addition to the enormous salaries of the CAO and his assistant, the Police Chief made $457,000 and part-time council members were making between $90,000 and $100,000 a year for part-time work. All three of the appointed officials have resigned and some elected officials may be next; the Council has called an emergency session for tonight in the face of continuing public outcry.

I have grave concerns about anyone so blatantly ripping off taxpayers, but I also have concerns about why there was no transparency and oversight. An even greater frustration is that various right-wing conservative groups are extrapolating this situation and making a case that all public salaries are too high. This is worrisome because most public employees do not make big bucks and, while there are some pensions that are totally unfair, most hard-working public employees will not make much in retirement. I know hundreds of city, county, state and federal employees and the vast majority are concerned about their ability to cobble together enough to make it through retirement years.

Reviewing recent job announcements, for cities the size of Bell, I see CAO and assistant jobs advertised from anywhere from $85,000 to around $125,000, with some over $150,000 depending on cost of living in that area. Curiously, Bell’s CAO started at $73,000 in 1993, which was within reason. How it got so far out of line is beyond me and, as the AP noted, it appears that city residents didn’t pay attention.

There are several messages here. First, there are always anomalies in the world of compensation and this, no matter how outrageous and wrong, should not be used as a hammer to punish other public administrators who are on call 24/7 365, and deal with some of the most complex issues in America. Second, the vast majority of public employees are not overpaid…not even close, and have less security than ever. Let’s not forget that there have been massive layoffs of city, county and state employees over the past two years. The remaining employees might (and might not) have more security in these dark economic times, but that is what is keeping many from bolting for more money elsewhere. Third, there is a sad and misleading overreach being perpetrated by various conservative groups and news sources, and, generally, their data does not match reality. How these folks can rage on for 30 to 60 minutes (especially the convened panels of ‘experts’) with far-ranging accusations borders on a witch hunt.

I believe in fair wages and reasonable pension plans. Government employees endure what their corporate counterparts typically do not – incessant public scrutiny, constant complaints, insufficient budgets, growing expectations and demand, being constantly on-call, and limited opportunities. It is about service…not profit. Yes, there are those who have profiteered in this case and I’m sure there are others (some union pensions come to mind), but generally, compensation is not out of line and should not be used as another vehicle to malign public employees.

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, Community Leaders and Public Administrators, will be available in fall 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).