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.

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This article was edited from the text of a speech presented at the "Service to the Citizen Summit" Feb. 29 in Denver.