America's cities and counties have always been government's frontline -- face to face with citizens. Twenty-five years ago -- when 75 percent of the public said they had confidence and trust in government -- that contact was fairly positive. Today, however, things have changed.

While state and local government still fares better than Washington, D.C., a 1994 poll showed that only about 30 percent of the public trusted state and local government.

Some analysts believe that citizen mistrust of government regularly rises and falls, and is nothing to worry about. Others fear today's attitudes are potentially more harmful. Speaking at a 1996 symposium, Joseph Nye, dean for the Kennedy School of Government, said, "The worry is that low trust may tend to be cumulative. If it becomes the conventional wisdom that government can't do anything right, and that is repeated time and again by politicians and the press, people begin to believe it. And that may reduce the effectiveness of government, which in turn will lead to lower and lower trust."

And trust affects support. "If people believe that government should not be trusted, then they won't provide the resources," explained Nye. "And if they don't provide the resources, then government can't perform. And if government can't perform, then people will become more dissatisfied and more distrustful of it."

It is in America's communities that citizens are most vocal about the shortcomings of government and more likely to withdraw support for the resources cities and counties need to operate. While most cities and counties struggle to cope with the downward spiral of citizen support, a few local governments are experimenting with ways to become more responsive through innovative technology and management techniques.

Ask local government about the biggest problems they face, and most don't mention crime, economic development or poverty. Instead, they talk about the need to operate more effectively, to be more responsive to citizens' needs and to cut costs. "That kind of two-sided pressure -- greater effectiveness at reduced cost -- is an enormous challenge to local government professionals," said Michael Humphrey, business director for telecommunications and information technology at Public Technology Inc. (PTI).

Great Expectations

Nowhere is that challenge more evident than in the management of information technology. According to Humphrey, appointed and elected local government leaders increasingly expect technology to help solve their problems. "Unfortunately, many of these officials have unrealistic expectations of what technology can do for them," he pointed out. That, in turn, has raised a host of concerns for IT managers who must somehow deal with these great expectations.

"As nation states weaken, the world's great urban regions -- "citistates" -- are gaining prominence as the centers for the activity that counts most -- economic. They're the natural environmental basins, the true labor markets, the way the world is organized."

To help local governments get a better handle on these issues, PTI recently convened a task force consisting of local jurisdictions from around the country. They ranged from leading government innovators, such as Phoenix and Montgomery County, Md., to lesser-known jurisdictions, such as Greensboro, N.C., and Bellevue, Wash. They discovered that local governments hope to increase their use of technology to build more effective services that are responsive to citizens' needs, while holding down costs. But they are struggling with some key management issues in turning their IT goals into reality.

Humphrey singled out geographic information systems (GIS), robust networking and Internet/intranet applications as technologies that local governments view as crucial to improving service delivery and lowering the cost of government operations. "Local officials now view GIS as part of their information infrastructure, as well as a management tool for analysis and decision support," he said. Other technologies that merit scrutiny are client/server and electronic commerce.