Vermont: The Forest for the Trees

As one who’s never served in political office, I often remind myself how easy it is to opine with impunity about what’s right and wrong with our state and national governance systems – a reminder that opinion writing demands respect, objectivity, and a healthy dose of humility.

That said, I worry deeply about our deteriorating ability to govern strategically. We see problems in a siloed landscape rather than as a broad vista. Our piecemeal decision-making systems don’t acknowledge the speed with which problems arise, technologies affect communities, environments deteriorate, economies cycle, and demographics change. To mix my metaphors, Vermont has no strategic planning process that sees the forest for the trees.

Strategically speaking, problems often suggest opportunities. For example, our declining school population is forcing school consolidations and closings. Consolidations make sense, closings don’t. Local schools are often the heart of a small community and should be hives of local activity and utility – perhaps as daycare centers with professional early educators and retired seniors. The current effort to build a new daycare infrastructure regulated separately from public education will do little but add expense and confusion to our public education mission. The two are one.

The same applies to our declining VT State College system. We could be redefining its mission instead of being arguing about money that isn’t there. It costs $50,000 a year to keep minor non-violent offenders in prison, but we could be spending one third that amount on state college system tuition to create a pathway back to family, community and employment. We could also use our state colleges to acculturate new Americans arriving here, teaching them civics, job skills, English, and generally paving their way to effective community integration and employment.

I know this type of strategic thinking is not intrinsic to either the executive or legislative branches. Perhaps a volunteer corps of seven men and women from the business and non-profit communities with knowledge of education, healthcare, justice, the environment, and the economy could be appointed not for their political sensibilities but for their leadership experience and strategic thinking capacity. They could then serve as a strategic guide to all three governmental branches in an effort to better understand the accelerating future.

 

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