2019: Time for plans A, B and C

Remember the story about the tourist who asks a local for directions to [insert here Dublin/Aberdeen/Newcastle/Cardiff/Belfast as you choose]? The local replies: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

brexit

If 2018 felt like that, 2019 may be worse, according to many commentators.

The reality is that we do start from here, and we need some idea of how we got here before we can judge where we may be heading.

In 2016, the narrative was about ‘rejection of established elites’.

That manifested itself most starkly in the Brexit referendum, in Trump’s election in the USA, and other developments elsewhere, such as Rodrigo Duterte taking power in the Philippines and the rise of parties like Syriza in Greece.

In 2017, while a similar sense remained, the focus morphed into ‘Nationalism’, with leaders invoking ‘patriotism’ in defence of their mother/fatherlands: Trump again, Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Sisi in Egypt, Kim Jong-Un in North Korea, and the AfD party in Germany.

Last year, the trend morphed again, into ‘Nostalgia’, as characterised by The Economist.

The sense is that things used to be better: ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexit Britain needs the ‘spirit of the blitz’; new President Bolsonaro in Brazil evokes the former regime of ‘the Generals’; AMLO (new Mexican President Obrador) appears to seek a return to the ‘golden age’ of Mexico’s 20th century.

And while the motivations may be different, in some countries, it has clearly been about returning to a time when there were fewer immigrants.

It is impossible to predict accurately where this will head next.

In Britain, for instance, we still don’t know whether we will have a Brexit this year – never mind of what kind – just a couple of months before we are due to leave the EU.

Meanwhile, we can be sure that economic conditions will change too, sometimes in response to political developments, at other times in quite unrelated ways.

This may seem remote from individual organisations and their leaders.

But these macro trends and developments impact governments and influence the thinking of ministers, civil servants and citizens alike.

For instance, if there is a bad Brexit (however defined), what will be the legislative and economic impacts?

How will funding for social care or new housing development be impacted? What about funding for benefits and homelessness support?

If the economy is adversely affected and sterling falls, what about the costs of imports? If inflation rises, social rents can rise, but will people be able to afford these?

If unemployment rises, how will that affect demand for support services?

Conversely, will immigration restrictions affect the supply of workers for construction, property maintenance and care services?

And how will Brexit impact Ireland, given the interrelationship between its economy and the UK’s?

The point is to be aware of broader trends and influences, and to recognise that things will change – hopefully sometimes for the better, but often for the worse.

Each organisation needs not just Plan A, but Plans B and C, too. This is no less true for councils, housing associations, care providers and charities, than it is for national government and independent businesses.

Boards and executives must keep asking: “What could change? What could go wrong? What are the threats to our income and operations? Where could the opportunities lie? How can we turn them to our advantage? How can we and must we refocus?”

There is no mystery here – it is common sense.

But in an uncertain and unpredictable world, simply trying to muddle through and hoping all will turn out fine would represent a failure of governance and a dereliction of duty.

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