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Looking to The Future vs. Learning From The Past: A Lesson From History Part 2

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Abels
November 2, 2019

In the August 22nd PA Times edition I described lessons managers can learn from their historical predecessors. That column described how the vision set by Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century formed the foundation of foreign policy internationalism that guided the United States until the early 21st century. But while Wilson was successful in creating a new foreign policy paradigm for the United States, he failed to convince the Senate to adopt the League of Nations, which was an essential part of his vision to prevent future wars. This failure was a result of not allowing alternative ideas to have input into the formulation of the League, not compromising with competing interests and failure to conduct a comprehensive public information program that would ensure the public understood how the League could prevent future wars without unduly sacrificing national sovereignty.

This column will discuss a second historical leader whose actions apply to 21st century public management. That person is General George Marshall. Marshall is recognized as the visionary Chief of Staff who formulated the United States strategy that was instrumental in defeating Germany in WW II, and, as the Secretary of State who spearheaded the Marshall Plan which helped rebuild Europe after WW 2. Lessor known is Marshall’s role in reshaping the strategic focus of the Army so it could be successful in WW2 and establishing a planning system in the State Department which was responsible for formulating the foreign policy orientation of the United States after WW 2.

Analyze Personal Experience and Observation to Shape the Future

In World War 1 Marshall served as a staff officer for General John J. Pershing. From this perspective he saw the human devastation caused by the emergence of new technologies that were not countered by new tactics. Understanding the tragic lessons from WW1, Marshall worked to become the Assistant Commandant for the United States Infantry School where he could reshape the war fighting philosophy of the United States Army and revolutionize infantry tactics. He understood that for the United States to be victorious in future wars, it was critical that the Army fully develop the new technologies that had emerged in the early 20th century. Marshall’s revamped curriculum for the infantry school was taught to over 200 infantry officers who would later become generals in WW2, as well as thousands of Army officers who would implement the strategies that won the war. The long-term vision Marshall formed through lessons and experiences gleaned in WW1 revolutionized the war-fighting principles utilized by the United States Army in the mid-20th century. This new strategic orientation was a catalyst that allowed the United States to emerge victorious in World War 2.

The lesson for today’s manager is the importance of identifying and analyzing current and past organizational experiences to determine how they apply to the future. What administrative and managerial changes need to be made because of changes that have or are occurring in our organizational environment?  

Establish Strategic Planning Teams to Study and Prepare for the Future

A second lesson is expanding your institutional planning capabilities to identify changes that will occur in the future. In 1947 President Truman nominated Marshall to be Secretary of State. Marshall’s first action as Secretary was to insure the State Department had a system to plan for future eventualities. To do this he created a policy planning staff responsible for anticipating the future and determining courses of action the United States could take to address future contingencies. The policy planning staff was instrumental in formulating the Marshall Plan that assisted in revitalizing Europe after WW2.

Marshall’s career was noted by his ability to project future eventualities and design institutions to address those emerging conditions. Marshall’s policy planning staff is relevant to 21st century public managers and could help managers understand the ambiguous environment that is common to the complex systems we manage. The environment inherent to the short-term management of complex systems often precludes managers from performing long term forecasting and planning. Today’s public manager can apply the lessons from Marshall by creating a policy planning body whose mission is to identify future trends and design alternatives that could address those future eventualities. Responding to resource scarcity, planning teams can be informal with members serving on the team as an assigned duty. Optimally, teams should be multi-agency representing organizations within a region of impact.

Using city government as an example, a planning team could identify future economic, political and sociological trends that will confront local government in the next decade. The planning team could then formulate alternative policies to preempt or address those issues before they emerge. The planning team would report to the senior executive team and the alternatives developed would serve as contingency plans for future eventualities. Team members could be multi-jurisdictional, representing local governments and stakeholder organizations within an identified jurisdictional district.

Lessons for Today from Marshall

Marshall was a strategic long-term planner. He taught that public managers need to willfully analyze their experiential lessons as the basis of designing future systems to successfully meet future challenges. Secondly, to enhance future readiness, managers should form strategic planning teams charged with completing on-going SWOT analysis and then identify actions that will address the trends identified.

Author: Michael Abels. Career city manager and retired Lecturer in Public Administration, University of Central Florida. Currently adjunct instructor at Stetson University. Recently published a text-workbook through Routledge Taylor & Francis Group titled Policy Making in the Public Interest: A Text and Workbook for Local Government. Author contact email is [email protected]. Twitter @ abelsmike


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