Do you remember seeing photographs of or visiting old ghosts towns across the US, particularly in the West? In the near future, we’ll be seeing new ghost towns across the country. Will your local government be one of them? It could be… but needn’t be. There are plenty of problems ahead for sure, but there are also possibilities for renewal as well.
We’ve been exploring a number of potential scenarios for local governments – small cities, towns and counties – and have come to the conclusion that a number of them will cease to exist in the next two decades. So, why should you care? You should care if you don’t want to leave behind a legacy of dying and dead cities and counties.
The purpose of this article is to give you a realistic picture of what is about to happen in many American local governments, and insight into what you need to do NOW to prepare for that.
First, let’s look at what we can reasonably expect to happen that will affect your sustainability – after all, you’ll want to thrive, not just survive. We’ve found four things:
1. Significant reduction in direct and indirect revenues within 5 years
Larger government entities are going broke, either through deliberate revenue reductions or bad investment decisions such as retirement funds and complex hybrid investments. Local governments can’t rely on stable revenue transfers from regional, state and national resources any longer.
2. Talent migration to larger metro areas
Talent, the social capital that starts and grows commerce, is migrating away from rural and suburban areas to large metroplexes that offer a wider variety of experiences, opportunities and services. There is a scaling factor here where you have to be of a certain population size – let’s say 250,000 – to offer a quality of life essential for this basic engine of commerce.
3. Resource constraints (i.e. water, energy and transportation)
Water is the resource of destiny in the Western US. And it is getting harder and harder to find, let alone manage. Much of the US has reached a resource limit to growth. And like any living organism it will retreat to its core to survive. Carbon energy needs to be substituted. Our national transportation infrastructure, including air travel, is outdated and crumbling.
4. Aging in place
Lastly, the over riding demographic is that our populations are getting older and demanding more services, especially healthcare. The young and well off leave their communities of origin with smaller tax bases and gravitate to the growing megacities. They leave behind the old, poor and less able, vastly increasing the strain on provision of local social services and healthcare.
Why is this happening?
Now that we have your attention, let’s briefly look at why these challenges are coming. Simply put, local governments are now caught up in a global web of systems – be they social, technical, commercial or governmental. What is happening at a global scale impacts the local. There is a multiplier effect at work:
- Increasing diversity of demographics, belief systems and cultural heritage
- Complexity as everything and everyone gets connected to everything else
- Personal awareness of global events through social media
- Speed and velocity of change and word of mouth
- Volatility, uncertainty and lack of trust in environments, economic and political institutions
- And lastly, increasing self knowledge, particularly among youth, which causes a shift in desires, expectations and demands
What can I do about it?
So, what do you as a civic leader need to do? First thing is having a strategy with a number of contingencies to guide your responses to these impending forces. No plan, no foresight and you’ll be at the mercy of all these things outside your direct control.
What happens when you don’t have a strategy? You can muddle through and hope for the best. But, status quo is death because there will be more competition, more complexity, more choice, less control and less clarity of outcomes.
Or you can develop the capability to forecast, anticipate and change before you are faced with a certain demise… tomorrow’s ghost town.
What are your first steps? What do you need to do today, if you have this vision of the future?
The very first and usually the hardest thing to do is to honestly understand and clearly articulate the core purpose of your city? Why are you there? Historic accident? Product of a bygone economic era such as Detroit? Why do your citizens call this place their “home”? Why not be elsewhere?
Your core purpose is your True North: your guiding star. If you know why you exist – what your purpose is – then you can make all your decisions guided by that purpose, which you clearly share with all of your stakeholders.
Next is branding. Yes, you need a brand and not just some trite slogan like “Everybody’s Hometown”. What is unique, valuable and defensible about your city or county? And what is your branding strategy? So you know your purpose, and have a solid brand, but how do you communicate that to a larger community? One from which you want to attract positive word-of-mouth, talent, commerce and capital.
Once you’ve created your brand's True North strategy so that all touched by your brand enjoy the authentic bond of a shared sense of purpose that will earn the loyalty and relevance that your civic brand richly deserves. In this digital era of transparency, it is crucial to listen to and connect with your stakeholders to strengthen their loyalty and trust, internally and externally, in order to build long-term relationships. That only comes by engaging your brand with all your stakeholders to co-create enduring win-win relationships.
Without risk of boring you, we humbly suggest that tomorrow you get up, go to work and start thinking, planning and working on three initiatives:
- Putting someone in charge of strategic planning, branding and innovation
- Develop a plan for consolidation of services as revenues collapse
- Make continuous civic sustainability and well-being your central policy goal
What do you get with all this? You get a city that attracts all the resources it needs. You get a city that is more concerned with quality of life than size. You get a happy place to live, work and learn – the brand you own is the brand you earn.
And if you are not driving towards these things, just what are you doing and why?