Can We Talk?

Can We Talk?

by / September 3, 2003
For the foreseeable future, Septembers won't be what they once were. The gentle nudge of fall scents, hints of color on trees and the whisper of holidays that soon will arrive occur as a sentimental backdrop to the still-vivid memory of Sept. 11, 2001. Much has changed since then, and yet, much remains the same.

In our rather esoteric world of government and technology, 9-11 launched an urgent dialog about interoperable communications. As far as hardware and software, it seems we have made progress. When it comes to the human factor, there is still a great jurisdictional chasm to cross, even though "intergovernmental" has become a familiar part of our lexicon during the past two years.

I experienced this in June at the 71st Annual Conference of Mayors in Denver -- the mile-high city is a showcase for the inherent power of local government. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb transformed his city's deteriorating downtown region into a vibrant commercial and residential center that has immediate impact on the quality of life for all residents. This interface between government and the governed drove the mayors' discussions, as well as their frustration.

Save for the almost token presence of a federal or state participant (who might as well have had targets painted on their foreheads), no one needed to be convinced the streets of America belong to local government. A sampling of assertions:

"You don't call the White House or the federal Capitol when you have a problem. You don't call the statehouse. You call city hall."

"Cities will power the nation's economic growth."

"All emergencies are local emergencies."

"It isn't the president; it isn't the governor who stands at the graveside. It is our job, our duty."

From the high-profile names to those who fly under the national radar, mayors at the conference held collective frustration at being, in their view, at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to homeland security funding as well as being the recipient of federal unfunded mandates.They issued a flood of complaints and examples of being ignored and undervalued by their colleagues in the state and federal sectors.

But Your Honors, I have heard similar plaintive cries from your colleagues in state government. To be fair, their biggest complaint is that the federal sector, some allege, is long on promises and short on delivery. They also use words like "unresponsive, uncommunicative and overly complicated."

Sound familiar?

State CIOs have also voiced frustration about communicating within state government itself. At the National Association of State Chief Information Officers' Midyear Conference, a CIO suggested they invite some state Cabinet members or department heads to their meetings.

Imagine sweeping, large-scale intergovernmental dialog that persists beyond the physical confines and limited timelines of a conference. Certainly valiant efforts have been made to create a vehicle to such understanding. Most efforts, however, have been too small in scale and fraught with political tensions. What persists is a widespread failure to communicate.

To be fair, it is a formidable challenge. One federal government with its complex web of nearly uncountable agencies; 50 states with multiple layers of power; more than 3,000 counties, each with its unique brand of governance, sharing their turfs with nearly 36,000 cities, towns and villages. Nonetheless, if we have the will to overcome the human barriers, we certainly have the technology to do a much better job of facilitating real intergovernmental communications.

Cities are reaching out and building regional partnerships that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino calls the "wave of the future." Perhaps these new alliances will become the platform to host the post-9-11 dialog from ground-level government to statehouse to Capitol Hill.
Darby Patterson Executive Editor at Large