New technologies make it possible to live the democratic ideal and take government to the people. In a world where product life cycles are shorter and capital and jobs increasingly mobile, governments will have to innovate to remain viable. So says Jane Smith Patterson, senior adviser to the governor for science and technology in North Carolina and eminence grise behind the state's conspicuously successful IT strategy, which has landed it with several IT firsts, from consolidated data centers in the early 1980s to the development of the information superhighway in the early 1990s.
Patterson remains ahead of her time. Leapfrogging from academia to government to industry to academia and then back to government, she brought entrepreneurial flair and market savvy to the state's science and technology portfolio.
Always one step ahead of the pack, she has an uncanny knack of divining the future of IT. She pioneered the consolidation of data centers in the early 1980s, long before this became trendy. By the early 1990s, she saw the emergence of electronic governance and electronic commerce as vehicles for delivering better-quality services to the public and making government more accessible to citizens.
Now, in an effort to raise North Carolina's economic competitiveness entering the 21st century, she has turned her attention to knowledge management -- how to optimize the sharing and distribution of an organization's accumulated intellectual capital -- and how to shorten the cycle-time of scientific discovery through virtual collaborations between universities, federal laboratories and, ultimately, private industry.
Looking ahead to 2030 and beyond, Patterson foresees a new era of smaller, nimbler and more entrepreneurial government where governments govern and leave operations to those best suited for the job.
Imagine a time in the near future in which North Carolina's drivers' licenses are issued in Florida and its business licenses in Utah, or tax collections are handled by California. At first blush, these are outrageously fanciful scenarios appearing to challenge conventional notions of state sovereignty.
But this is precisely the kind of government we will likely see, according to Patterson. "Government will become more of an investor in new programs and services delivery and create partnerships and alliances with nonprofit organizations, foundations and industries," Patterson said. "By using these strategic partnerships, government will be able to become more of an innovator than the embedded funder of last resort. Government must learn to be more of a risk-taker for U.S. industries as well as its citizens, working through their state and local governments, to stay competitive with other countries in the new millennium."
Technology is changing the way citizens interact with government, "Jeffersonian technologies," she calls them. "Thomas Jefferson had a vision of creating more effective government by having better-informed citizens," she said. "Information technology and networks make it possible to achieve this vision by distributing knowledge and information more broadly through networks. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) is one technology which allows this."
Patterson cites the example of Cary, N.C., where residents can access local government developments, such as zoning regulations, via the Web in realtime. "In this type of scenario, the citizen becomes an actor with government leaders and managers, and not their audience," Patterson said.
Under pressure to improve the speed, access, quality, variety and cost of services, governments may hand over the management of various services to more efficient service providers, be they private or public sector. The prospect of South Carolina running parts of North Carolina is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The Netherlands' government recently spun off an IT unit by way of a leveraged buyout, allowing it to continue handling government business while competing with private entities for business. It has done so well the government plans to invite public shareholding through an initial public offering (IPO). According to Patterson, there are clear lessons here for U.S. government agencies.
"We must become more entrepreneurial," she said. "Ultimately, the viability of government is measured by the usage of our services by citizens and corporations. If they are not using our services, then we must go back and redefine what we do. Government must do the necessary right activities that citizens need and that are not easily handled by the private sector, or there are public-policy reasons why the private sector should not handle them