We devote many pages in this issue to looking back at 2004. But as the year draws to a close, it's also time to think of the future.

Having just spent a few days at re:Public III -- an annual leadership retreat sponsored by Government Technology magazine and the Center for Digital Government -- it's hard not to come away feeling both apprehensive and optimistic about the year ahead.

More than 100 of state and local government's best and brightest gathered last month at a gorgeous Tucson, Ariz., resort to outline leadership challenges on the horizon -- and there were plenty of gnawing issues from which to choose:

oShoring up a U.S. education system that struggles to give students the tools they need to succeed in an increasingly competitive world economy.

oAttracting young, educated workers to communities that soon will see baby boomers retiring in droves.

oConfronting the staggering cost of providing health care for these retirees.

oEducating an electorate that, in many cases, seems to be growing more active yet less informed, and defusing the intense political partisanship that threatens to divide the nation.

It's tough stuff, and there was little consensus on how to solve any of it.

On the other hand, a look around the room inspired confidence.

A remarkably diverse group of public officials and private-sector representatives came together for the single purpose of addressing the country's most vexing governance challenges.

State CIOs sat next to mayors. Local CIOs chatted with state lawmakers. Educators exchanged ideas with city managers. And some of the technology industry's biggest players got an up-close look at what keeps public officials awake at night. All in all, that's probably a good model for sorting out the intertwined problems facing communities throughout the nation as we wrap up 2004 and enter 2005.

I left Tucson thinking the future is in pretty good hands. These officials are passionate about improving government operations, and they aren't afraid to break a few conventions -- or governmental boundaries -- to bring about change.

Let's just hope their engagement and enthusiasm takes hold on a national scale.