Futures of Governance: leading through networks

By Jonathan Peck, President and Senior Futurist

What is our best hope for governance in the decades ahead? This question has grown more pressing for me ever since I spoke with hundreds of accountants for various departments and agencies in the federal government back in 2014. I gave them two statements and asked which one they agreed with more:

  1. Our government is the best in the world. There are improvements that need to be made, but there is still no better form of government on earth
  2. Our government is failing its people. The government is not up to the challenges we face today

At the time I had been working with different government departments. That experience had me less surprised than you might be to learn that many more accountants working across our government chose the second statement as closer to the truth.

Reflecting on the futures work IAF conducted in the federal government over multiple decades, here are some insights about where we are and where we might look for a more hopeful future for our governance:

  • In 1996 at the Military Health Systems 2020 kick-off, a military expert from the RAND Corporation described how networks would become more powerful than governments. The web of computers and humans would prove fundamental to organizing interests and concerted action.
  • In 2012 at an Air Force Medical Services 2045 futures summit, federal leaders realized that “the leaders we have are not the leaders we need” because the government is organized into silos where people learn leadership by competing for control of budgets and personnel.
  • In his massive study of organizational development, C. Otto Scharmer describes in Theory U how central authority bureaucracy has become less effective as an organizational form than the “ecological model” that can both respond to and shape change swiftly through innovation in niches. I consulted to multiple departments in the federal government between 2008 and 2014, each organized as a central authority bureaucracy that lacked the ability to adapt quickly to change.

By 2015 I determined that leading through networks of organizations, groups, and individuals may hold more hope for our future governance than leading through the many bureaucracies we have organized in our federal, state and local governments. Bureaucracies can be effective members of these networks if the leadership can adapt to a different form that gives up control to gain influence. The combination of conventional organizations and distributed networks may be the best form of governance to respond when change comes fast.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided me with an opportunity to test this hypothesis. In 2016 they funded Health Equity and Prosperity—An American Freedom and Justice Movement. By design this project sought to use networks that could have vision stimulate action intended to bring both health equity and prosperity into our national conversation. This was happening at the same time as the national political campaigns to elect our president. We found that leading through networks can indeed coordinate action around shared vision. To join the networked effort please connect with https://www.100mlives.org.

Over subsequent years I have continued to seek opportunities with 100MLives and to strengthen networks of leaders who share visions of health. Currently we are also exploring the ability of local leaders to work in collaboration with community leaders and bring change in the year ahead through a project with Los Angeles County. IAF is subcontracting with another partner from our Health Equity and Prosperity project—the Thought Leadership and Innovation Foundation—on the Los Angeles County Community Collaborative. (A white paper on the effort is available upon request from TLIF.) We intend to take an upstream and downstream approach to addressing the challenge of opioid addiction and other forms of substance abuse which reduce the potential for health and prosperity in neighborhoods, families and individuals. Leaders in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health have already agreed to fund this effort. Any success we achieve can be conveyed through our networks to leaders in other communities, counties and states. This may offer the best hope for responding to the challenge posed to our country by opioid abuse.

While we are exploring more effective organizing structures, there remain two big questions that I can’t answer yet but I know are key to whether or not we can hope for effective governance in the coming years and decades. What are the qualities of the leaders we need to unite us in the quest for better ways to live? Will the social networks that connect us be dedicated to improving life in the 21st century or serve lesser interests?