I firmly believe that we are rapidly entering a new and exciting era in society -- the Knowledge Age -- and the ramifications will be enormous. The transformation will be as great as the transition from the Agrarian Age to the Industrial Age. As we draw close to the end of this century and to the beginning of a new millennium, we are already seeing massive changes in the nature of work and the way we communicate and interact with each other. Peter Drucker put it rather bluntly: "We have started one of history's dramatic transformations. Before long, today's slower-moving corporations will have been swept away."
The transformation is also occurring in politics and government. If we take advantage of the possibilities, the next century can be the "Century of States," a golden era for limited, local government. Those public institutions, including education, that do not fully participate in the transformation will risk irrelevancy.
This is all being driven by the increasing power and speed of computers and the quantum leap in value and usefulness that occurs when computers are networked together. Someone said that if automotive technology had progressed as rapidly as computer technology, today a Mercedes Benz would cost $2. It would travel at the speed of sound and go 600 miles on a thimbleful of gas. Never have we seen a technology so powerful, yet so inexpensive.
When I took office more than three years ago, we made plans to develop several applications to more efficiently deliver government services to citizens and businesses. We have made excellent progress, and most of our state agencies now have Web sites and are interacting with their customers and clients. But it quickly became apparent that major applications would cost a great deal of money, sometimes tens of millions of dollars.
Because I knew other states faced the same dilemma and many features of our applications would be similar, I wondered if there might be a way states could collaborate better in the development of these expensive applications. I discussed it with my colleagues, and last December Western governors formally agreed to begin a new initiative we call SmartStates. The Western Governor's Association offices here in Denver will serve as headquarters for this initiative.
A SmartStates World Wide Web page will allow anyone to click on a map of the United States and see what innovative policy and management reforms are under way in that state. Or they will be able to click on an alphabetical list of policy, services and electronic applications and see what states are interested in collaborating on in those areas. There will be links to Web sites in individual states and to other Web sites on specific topics.
We know there are other groups doing similar things, and we want to cooperate and collaborate with them. The asset SmartStates brings is the political capital of the governors. When the SmartStates steering committee decides to focus on a particular application, it will be done with the support of the governors, and that should provide impetus and resources to get the job done. SmartStates is already engaged in electronic benefits transfer applications, telemedicine and now the Western virtual university.
The virtual university discussion got started because it was clear states needed to collaborate in this area. Advanced technology forces more collaboration, more partnering, more networking. It requires that individuals and institutions look for niches and their core competencies.
In education, we must align public policies with what is taking place in the marketplace. That means more flexibility, more choices, and an enriched environment in which to learn. Every student must gain part of their education through technology-delivered means because this is the way the world is going to work in the future. If our students are to be prepared, they must use technology extensively in their education.
Western governors now have released a detailed workplan to guide the creation of this new institution. We have in place a design team and a steering committee. Our states are organizing state advisory committees. Governors are requesting legislative appropriations to move the effort ahead in their states. Within 12 months we will be delivering courses to students.
Clearly, we have many cultural, bureaucratic and regulatory barriers to overcome. This is really like taking a giant leap into the unknown. The basic protocols and practices of higher education have remained essentially the same for 2,500 years. While we by no means propose dismantling or diminishing our existing institutions, we do propose adding new elements that we believe will have enormous long-term consequences for learning and training.
We are proposing a "virtual learning system" that will deliver traditional university courses, but also vocational/technical skills and job training for corporate and industry needs, and remedial high school equivalency (GED) courses for those needing basic proficiencies. It will be a learning system for a new millennium, one that incorporates the necessity of lifelong learning as the era of the "knowledge worker" emerges in the new century. It will involve our traditional public post-secondary institutions, but also private colleges and universities, companies that provide training, and the many private businesses that are developing courses and curriculum.
Clearly, our traditional higher education institutions no longer have a monopoly on teaching, learning, or preparing our citizens for the workplace. In the past, citizens needed to go to the college campus to obtain information and knowledge. In the future, information and knowledge will flow to wherever the people are. And it will come from many sources.
One of the tasks of the virtual learning system will be to develop ways to assess and measure learning and competency so that credit, certification and degrees can be awarded on the basis of competency, not seat-time. Rather than focusing on the accreditation of institutions and the credentialing of teachers, this new institution will value learning and competency. And where and how that learning and competency was attained will be irrelevant.
The virtual learning system will offer courses taught in traditional classrooms, via two-way interactive video over fiber-optic cable and satellite, using CD-ROMs and floppy disks, electronic bulletin boards and the Internet. Most courses will be taught live by an instructor, but others will be offered on-demand, at students' convenience. Students will take courses on campus, at home, in libraries, and in business offices. Many students will take some classes on campus, others via distance learning, and some accessing a mega-server or using a CD-ROM. Some courses will consist of a combination of delivery systems. A student might take a majority of courses on a traditional campus, but also take a course from an out-of-state college and another from a private training company.
We envision getting started by taking advantage of the distance-education courses already being offered by our higher education institutions. These classes will be offered across state lines, so that a student at the University of Colorado could take classes from the University of Utah, and vice versa.
Next we will create a formal degree-granting institution, that will not teach courses itself, but will act as a facilitator to bring together education providers and students in programs that are academically coherent.
Finally, the learning system will emerge as a new generation institution that formally recognizes learning and competency, without regard to the source of the instruction. The focus will be on learning and competency, rather than on courses, units, accreditation of institutions or credentialing of instructors.
Clearly, the Western governors have taken on a big project. No single institution, no single governor, no single state could make this happen on its own. We intend to move forward as a region, with governors using their political capital to break through the barriers.
The marketplace will eventually drive this paradigm shift forward. The only question is whether our region will help lead this change and thereby benefit from it, or be left behind and damaged by it.
I want to make what I believe is an important point here. SmartStates and the virtual university represent what I believe is an increasing trend in this nation's governance -- states working together.
This has high relevance as the nation engages in a great debate about devolution, centralized government and the responsibilities of the various levels of government. As states are granted more flexibility and authority in block grants, critics are wringing their hands in worry that states won't take care of basic human services needs and won't protect the environment.
Believe it or not, compassion, sensitivity and competency do exist outside the beltway. It is unfair to suggest that the thousands of state and local officials, all across this highly diverse country, directly accountable to voters, will not fairly, humanely and competently respond to the needs of the people. It is unfair to suggest that Washington knows better and can devise one-size-fits-all solutions that are superior to local solutions.
Today, the top-down mainframe era has been eclipsed by the power, speed and flexibility of networked PCs. Today, state and local governments are increasingly competent, professional and modernized. It is states that are developing innovative solutions to public policy problems, leading the way in welfare reform, education reform, health care reform and high-tech service-delivery initiatives. While the federal government was pre-eminent and rose to the challenges of the Industrial Age, today when citizens look at the federal government they see deficits, gridlock and unfunded mandates. State and local governments are ready to rise to the challenges of this new Information Age era of decentralization and empowerment.
With initiatives like the virtual university and SmartStates, the 50 states are establishing new ways of learning from, partnering, and collaborating with each other, operating like an intelligent network with end-point empowerment. Today there is an exciting new emphasis on "benchmarking" and "best practices" in state governments.
Over time, as states learn "best practices" from each other, we will see a definite upward spiral in competency, improved management and delivery of services. One state will find some exciting breakthroughs in welfare reform; another in electronic delivery of services; another in law enforcement, and so on. Ask yourself this question: Could such innovation, creativity and energy ever be spawned by one-size-fits-all solutions mandated from Washington?
The large state organizations like the National Governor's Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments are catching this vision. If they can be freed from spending so much time and effort in a defensive mode lobbying Washington, these organizations plan to devote more resources to state policy and management initiatives. With increased flexibility and authority, states can turn to collaborative learning and innovation, instead of spending so much effort fighting federal mandates.
Our country continues to need a strong national government that is supreme in limited areas of jurisdiction. The federal government will never be successful or have the support of citizens as long as it tries to be all things to all people and imposes mandates that don't fit the individual circumstances of the nation's diverse communities. We may never have another successful or truly popular president as long as
the president is responsible for every aspect of every citizen's life. The job description, as presently written, is not doable.
We can strengthen the federal government by focusing it more narrowly on those things it should be doing -- on those duties delegated to it by the Constitution. We need a national government that sets standards, but does not prescribe how these standards should be met.
We truly are seeing a transformation in society and in politics. Technological advances will help usher in the "Century of the States," with states collaborating, working together and learning from each other.
This article was edited from the text of a speech presented at the "Service to the Citizen Summit" Feb. 29 in Denver.