In his State of the Union address in January, President Clinton pronounced that "the era of big government is over." Rhetoric and politics aside, the president's remarks further confirm -- if such is required -- a diminished faith in centralized government at the end of the 1900s.

Top-down, industrial-strength governance -- the product of managing two global conflicts, decades of cold war and an industrial revolution -- is on the ebb.

This raises the interesting question: "After big government, what?"

DOWNSIZING WON'T DO IT

It misses the mark to assume that what is required for governing in the next century is simply the opposite of big government. Yes, there is great value in restructuring what is redundant and obsolete in our public sector, but as many Fortune 500 corporations have discovered, salvation does not lie in simply downsizing.

So while "smaller" is a component in the future profile of government, it will not be its defining characteristic. To get an idea of what comes after big government it is instructive to look at the dominant technology of our time.

Institutions and the cultures they reflect are shaped by the technologies of their era. As Neil Postman points out in his book Technopoly, the development of the stirrup in the eighth century created a new form of military technology -- mounted combat -- which greatly expanded the power of the knightly class and upset the balance of power in feudal society. In this century the automobile gave rise to America's sprawling suburbs and laid the foundation for the decay of our inner cities.

Powerful networked computing is the defining technology as we close in on the year 2000, and it is this which will significantly influence what follows big government of the 1900s.

The current decentralization of public-sector programs from Washington out to state and local governments is a natural evolution as the United States moves from an industrial to a digital democracy. The future of governance, like information systems, is in scalable, intelligent, cross-jurisdictional, cooperative networks in which the right resources can be effectively deployed to the right location at the right time.

The future lies in networked government services with decision-making and action resident at the community level -- wired to an intelligent infrastructure of regional, national and global resources pooled from both the public and private sectors.

This evolution to a networked government can be accomplished because of advances in technology, but it is impelled by the pressing demands for better results from our public institutions.

Criminal justice is a prime example of this. Involved local policing is the best insurance for safe communities. But local public safety officials -- be they judges, police or corrections officers -- need a robust, intelligent network connected regionally and nationally that accurately tells them in real-time who they are dealing with. Our cover story this month by Editor Wayne Hanson shows, in very personal terms, the terrible costs of disconnected, stand-alone justice agencies.

And if our goal goes beyond law enforcement to safe and healthy communities, then these networks must connect beyond criminal justice to resources for economic development, education and human services.

Public health is another area where networked services will play a critical role in future government service delivery. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the growing promise of telemedicine to leverage medical expertise from one part of the country to another -- a heart specialist in New York City, for example, assisting a physician in a small community hospital in the Midwest. Such networks can bring scalability and significant savings to public health care.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader remarked that technology has no inherent democratic imperative. The choice of whether a technology is engaged to forward or limit man's freedom resides with the individuals that harness it. Fifty, 20 or even 10 years ago, we did not have the computing and communications muscle to move our large and moribund government organizations into a decentralized and networked future. Today we do. Our challenge now is to provide the democratic vision to guide and build it.

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March Table of Contents