What About the Future?

This week I heard the legendary author and social critic Kurt Vonnegut suggest that what this country needs is a presidential cabinet position of Secretary of the Future. It’s a great idea and got me to thinking about my days in Madison when the police department put together a “Committee on the Future of the Department.” I wrote about it in my book, “Arrested Development.”


“[A] big step forward was identifying our future. Within a year or two after launching the Officer’s Advisory Council (OAC), I decided we needed to look ahead toward the future—to stop, look, and listen like the old wagon masters did, scan for dangers and challenges. We needed to think about the kind of department in which we wanted to work and the kind of department the community wanted. This was the direction I was going. Now I needed people to help me look to the future. It became the Committee on the Future of the Department.

The requirement for participation on the committee was that members had to have at least 15 years left to serve before retirement. I wanted those who were to do this futuring work to have not only experience but also time left to participate in making that future real—to be a stakeholder in that future.

“The officers who served on the committee met two to four times a month for a year before they issued their report. This kind of work is immensely significant for the success of sustaining any organization. For us, it set in motion the energy to think about tomorrow, how we might need to alter or change the organization, and how we might keep our effort going. In their report, the committee made three formidable recommendations with supportive material:

  • Move closer to the community.
  • Make better use of technology.
  • Improve workplace wellness.

“Those recommendations gave substance to my dream for decentralized neighborhood patrol districts that I first envisioned when I came to Madison. This now would more effectively move our officers closer to the people they served.

“Very soon construction was begun of our first decentralized police station—the Experimental Police District (EPD). The EPD was to be our field laboratory. Their recommendations also caused us to examine our structure, internal practices, and the overall direction in which the department was moving.

“Ultimately, that early effort to create a future vision for the department resulted in complete decentralization of patrol and investigative services into four stand-alone district stations that serve the City of Madison. The origins of this idea first began with my vision back in 1973 and the creation of a neighborhood patrol unit in the early 1980s, which assigned foot patrol officers to a number of our city’s key residential and business areas.”


From that experience I learned that it was essential for a modern police organization to constantly look forward to the future; to examine our role in the community and how decisions we made then would impact not only our future but the future of those whom we served.

On my management team, I always assigned the newest member the role of “The Devil’s Advocate.” His or her role was to always question the major decisions we made as a team — “What if this happens?… Have you thought how this will be received, by our officers, the community?”

If I had to do it over again I would have a team member perform the role of a futurist — to push the Devil’s Advocate even further — “How are the decisions we are making today positively effect the future of our city and its police officers?”

This would be tough job for a command officer for in order to think “outside the box,” that commander would have to be able to take him or herself OUT of the box which is the work environment which is so comfortable to us all.