Leader in the West

As Idahos Gov. Dirk Kempthorne works to make his state stronger, he is eager to take on his role as the new leader of the Western Governors Association.

by / October 30, 2000
By Shane Peterson | News Editor

As Idahos Gov. Dirk Kempthorne works to make his state stronger, he is eager to take on his role as the new leader of the Western Governors Association.

Q: What do you see as the biggest technology issues facing Idaho and other Western states?

A: Its to be connected. We know that the era of high technology -- and all of the opportunities that that suggests -- is upon us. We want to see that state government can avail itself of those opportunities. We
also want to make sure that were progressing; that we can help the citizens so that government can be efficient; and that were a partner with business so business can say, "Yes, thats a progressive area of the country." Forbes magazine named its top 10 cities in America for a
pro-business, entrepreneurial atmosphere -- eight of those top 10 were in the Western states. If youre going to retain that sort of leadership position, youd better be progressive and using the latest technology.

Q: When it comes to connecting rural areas, do you see telephone companies as adversaries or partners? Or are they dragging their heels?

A: My experience has been that they are very desirous of being partners. They want to help us with the connectivity. They are in business, and they need to look at their bottom line and see if it makes economic sense. When you look at our rural areas, the potential is there. But, if for some reason we physically are unable to bring those rural areas into this high-tech atmosphere, their full potential is not going to be reached.

Q: Im looking at the WGAs (Western Governors Association) High Technology Councils business plan, which speaks of nurturing public/private alliances to foster regional collaboration. How high a priority is that sort of thing going to be for you in the future?

A: A very high priority. We have a tremendous opportunity, and we have some very progressive companies -- leaders in the field -- that have formed this council. There are real-life applications. When we met in Hawaii, we saw some of the new innovations, some of the new opportunities that exist. What I intend to do is convert those applications to real-life situations. We all have challenges. As I listen to the different budget requests of all the departments, how can we achieve some of the objectives by tying into this new world of high-tech? How can we reduce some of the costs of government by tying into high-tech? To have these people whose business it is to solve problems -- well, government deals with problems every day. Through a partnership, we can find more solutions together on behalf of the citizens we serve. Our citizens are their customers, so its a nice partnership.

Q: I presume the companies are receptive to the idea.

A: Yes indeed. When you have an example of something that has been very successful, other people point to it and say, "Well, this is a model." Thats a great opportunity for business to say, "You know, we can bring the same model to your state." Everyone benefits from that. Its a good
investment by the companies, but its a great service thats provided to the citizen because youre at the leading edge of some of the applications of this new technology.

Q: When states look at what other states are doing, is that a competitive atmosphere? Or is it more of, "Oh, thats a great idea. Lets try to duplicate that in our state."

A: There is competition, but its healthy competition. My experience is that states are happy to share information with one another. For example, this is what were doing on behalf of children in our state, and its been beneficial. Heres what it means with regard to education.

Number one, youre proud to share that information because it is a success. Number two, youre proud to share it because, collectively, the states make up the United States, and we want to keep the United States positioned as a leader on all fronts. So, its very much a healthy competition.

Q: Do you think that type of willingness to share gives governments at all levels an advantage over business? Everybody complains about how slow government is, but government does a lot of things that are beneficial, that are different from the way business operates.

A: Let me combine collaboration with competition. Thats the atmosphere that you want. This is helpful for the businesses to help government to continue to be efficient and effective. Thats what attracts those businesses to say, ultimately, "Wed like to perhaps locate in a
particular state, because of the pro-business atmosphere which you have created."

We know that theres a shortage of engineers right now in the United States, and that shortage is projected to reach 1 million engineers. How do we deal with that? Industry needs those engineers, but governors cannot just simply get on the phone, call the universities and say to the university presidents, "Next year, would you please release more engineers to fill the void?" It goes back much earlier.

You need to make sure that these children in the first, second and third grade are excited about math and science and that they can read. This truly is back to the basics, but the children are growing up in this atmosphere where things move much faster. Thats why the use of computers in the classroom, the programs that can be interactive with the students -- thats going to capture the imagination and everyone benefits from that.

So when I ask companies, "How many of you believe that you will still be in business in 20-25 years?" Well, all of our successful companies say, "Of course, I will [be] in business." When you ask them what will be one of the key elements necessary to keep them positioned as a leader, theyll say, "Its our workforce."

Therefore, isnt it a good expenditure -- in fact, isnt it a good investment -- to make sure that the children who are born today are highly motivated and educated so that they are that workforce that we need to keep us positioned. You see how the partnership really builds when you identify that continuum.

Q: That kind of attitude has to come from the top down, from governors, correct?

A: Yes. But also in the collaborative process, though, where I can call in industry leaders and have the discussion and say, "Are we providing you with the type of graduates that you need?"

If were not, the next meeting I bring in the university presidents with the industry leaders and we have that discussion. Then I say, "All right, this is not just a one-way street. How can industry help us to become more effective in providing the very graduates that you need."
Some great innovations are coming from that, but, again, its that connectivity so that all segments of state can use distance learning, can utilize the excitement that can be generated through these new techniques and that no child is left behind.

Q: Do you see the New Economy driving states together?

A: We have the Western Governors High Tech Council; that very name itself suggests that 18 states in the West are all working together in finding new solutions to provide services to our citizens and that we can learn from each other. Sometimes, the value of lessons learned is what didnt work. You have to create an atmosphere in an
entrepreneurial spirit in which were going to try some things. Not everything will be successful, but from everything we try, we can learn something. Its just as important for states to share what they tried, and if it wasnt successful, how would they do it differently next time so we [wouldnt] have to step into those same dilemmas. There is a very positive atmosphere of cooperation among the states.

I might add that theres another element to that. Were conscious that when were talking about interstate commerce, if you have to go through a different process and different forms in each state, that can be cumbersome. Were looking at elements that neighboring states are using
that we could adopt and what do we have that you could adopt so commerce among states is streamlined to the extent possible.

Q: Given the accelerated pace of the Internet and children growing up faster than ever before, what type of government leaders do you see in the future?

A: Hopefully, theyre going to be well rounded. Certainly, theyre going to be aware that if youre going to be successful, you need to be aware of the latest technology. You want to be comfortable with that, but never so comfortable that you relax. You want to be a communicator
with both your citizens and your business community so that you can find that atmosphere that creates partnership.

Im a great believer in public/private partnerships because both parties can help define the objectives and the challenges. Both parties can bring assets to finding the solution, and when you find the solution, both parties can celebrate.

Q: Do you buy the assertion that government moves slower than business?

A: There has to be predictability with regard to government. We cant change rules, regulations or tax structures perhaps as rapidly as you might be able to do if you were a corporate entity and you could convene your board of directors and say that youre going to change direction now that the market has changed. I think, to some extent, business welcomes the fact that, in some areas of government, change is slower. That allows businesses to have predictability and stability so when they make their long-range business plans, there is some reliability. They know that those regulations and business tax structure has been that way and we can rely on that.

When I say regulation, its appropriate. There are some areas where you do need to define some parameters and rules, but never, ever, over regulation.

Q: How does your ranking high in certain areas of technology make your citizens feel about you?

A: I do believe that citizens appreciate it when they believe that they have a government that is continually trying to serve them better and in an efficient, effective manner. One of the goals -- its more than a goal, but Ill call it a goal -- that Ive place before all departments as they submit their budgets is: How can we perform the functions required more effectively and efficiently?

Many times, obviously, the solutions include using high-tech applications.

Q: What should we be expecting from the WGA in the next couple months?

A: Heres my objective: When we have the next WGA annual meeting here in Idaho, we will have actual application and implementation of some of the innovations we have discussed. Those innovations were used as an example of what can happen. I want to then demonstrate what has happened so that its not theory, but its practical application.