The future is ‘FutureStructure’

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Last week, the MMA was very pleased to be the regional partner and co-host for a special leadership program produced by Governing magazine, an event that was part of Governing’s new “FutureStructure” initiative. FutureStructure is a forward-thinking innovation founded by e.Republic, their parent company, centered around the essential management principal that “everything is connected,” and the belief that those cities and towns that embrace integrated systems management will build the most successful, inviting and economically competitive communities of the 21st century.

In Governing’s own words, “FutureStructure is a new framework for thinking through and solving the challenges faced in building economically and socially robust communities. The aim of FutureStructure is to overcome the constraints inherent in haphazard and silo’d approaches that communities often take when conceiving, investing in and building their futures.

“FutureStructure starts from the premise that a community or region is best envisioned as a large system of deeply interdependent smaller systems. These systems include ‘hard infrastructure’ for things like transportation and utilities to ‘soft infrastructure’ that support human capital, like education and economic development.

“Harnessing developments in technology, like powerful analytics and the ‘Internet of things’ combined with designing communities as systems, FutureStructure is about what gets built, but more importantly how it’s built and especially how what gets built connects with everything else.”

The FutureStructure initiative includes special research, publications, workshops and leadership events to convene practitioners to discuss the latest thinking on how to implement this modern and innovative approach to public management. Governing has issued four publications that provide an excellent introduction to this exciting development in public administration. Click here to read the first issue of FutureStructure’s magazine.

Governing reached out to the MMA when they were looking for an East Coast location for a FutureStructure summit on water, waste and energy systems, and we immediately offered to assist in the planning and logistics. Over the years, the MMA and thousands of local officials have benefited from Governing’s outstanding reporting and analysis of public policy and management issues. All municipal leaders should bookmark governing.com and visit the site regularly, because Governing’s website is a treasure-trove of information that is timely, relevant and top-notch. Partnering with the magazine was a natural fit, and a way to lend support to the organization’s great work.

The FutureStructure event gathered about 80 local and state officials from across the country to explore the connections between our water, waste and energy systems. These systems are clearly related and interconnected, but over the years have been planned, developed and operated separately. Thus, we have inherited organizational structures that make it difficult to achieve improved efficiency, much less maximum efficiency. The summit was an chance for officials to “think big” and talk about the opportunities and challenges of doing business differently, with one goal in mind: providing the very best service and visionary leadership for the public.

During the conference, it became exceedingly clear that the FutureStructure approach is a natural for local government. Compared to states and the federal government, cities and towns have much more experience with “horizontal” management that relies on collaborative decision-making and joint initiatives. Part of this is because municipalities have no room or financial resources for bureaucratic largesse, and departments work together much more closely than their counterparts in state or federal agencies. The seeds of systems management have been planted at the local level, and they will sprout quickly if intentionally nurtured and supported.

In the post-Great Recession world, cities and towns are recognizing that we face a new fiscal reality. This “new normal” will be defined by declining organizational support from the state and federal levels and increasing budget pressures stemming from unsustainable growth in personnel and retiree expenses (driven mostly by medical costs that continue to rise at a faster rate than revenues) and the extraordinary expense of repairing, maintaining and expanding our aging environmental and transportation infrastructure systems.

For FutureStructure disciples, the new normal will also be defined as an era of comprehensive integrated planning, holistic thinking and systems-based management. By recognizing that “everything is connected to everything,” cities and towns can develop multi-tiered and multi-pronged approaches that will overcome budget challenges, improve services to citizens, maximize efficiency, expand economic capacity, and enhance the overall quality of life in communities.

In the coming years, one of the greatest impediments that local government leaders will face in implementing a dynamic horizontal management approach to integrate their hard and soft infrastructure and technology systems will be the extraordinarily intractable and rigid regulatory structure of state and federal agencies. Cities and towns live under the reality of EPA, DEP, MassDOT, USDOT, HUD, DHCD, FEMA, EOPSS, FEC, EOEEA, DOE, DESE, and many more bureaucracies. These federal and state entities operate independently and issue strict rules that require different standards, add costs and inefficiencies, and force an artificial division of responsibilities at the local level.

This state and federal top-down (vertical) approach will easily fracture lateral (horizontal) efforts to connect municipal departments and systems. The answer, of course, is that state and federal executives will need to change their philosophy, too, and adopt the principles of systems engineering. In Massachusetts, we will need to introduce the next governor to the FutureStructure process and encourage him or her to be flexible and open to the need for significant regulatory reform.

For some, this entire topic may seem far too abstract and distant, yet I believe that the folks at Governing and FutureStructure are onto something big. Systems management will introduce a great wave of change and innovation in public administration, and I predict that cities and towns will be riding the crest of that wave. That’s because local officials are on the ground with their residents and businesses, and they are positioned better than any other government leaders to see how everything is connected, how the pieces can fit together, and how actually fitting them together will build even stronger communities.