Redefining Local Government

Communities are like a ship on the high seas being battered and tossed by hurricane winds and waves ---- a tempest of change

by / May 13, 2005
Every now and again, when looking at the big picture of social transformation, the question arises: Is the power of the nation state in decline? Can governments really govern the way they have in the past?

Even the National Foreign Intelligence Board's conservative Global Trends 2015 report noted "The state will remain the single most important organizing unit of political, economic, and security affairs through 2015 but will confront fundamental tests of effective governance."

The fact that such a report even discussed the question highlights that the potential decline of the nation state has received serious attention by more than a few. And certainly when considered in the context of economic globalization, the establishment of regional free-trading blocs, a growing number of international regulatory treaties and the increasing influence of NGOs operating transnationally, there is little dispute that the challenges to governments at all levels have become increasingly complex.

Underpinning an array of shifting political and social dynamics lies a fundamental social transformation that futurists and sociologists have been investigating and describing for years -- a transformation that continues to produce new unanticipated twists and turns.

"As the rate of change becomes faster, governments -- federal, state or provincial and municipal -- seem to become more dysfunctional," notes W.R. Clement, a long time policy consultant to the Canadian government and author of Quantum Jump: A Survival Guide for the New Renaissance.

On one level, that view seems rather brutal. For years Government Technology has reported on IT innovations and applications which continue to improve the quality and efficiency of service delivery to citizens. Web pages, GIS applications, integrated justice solutions, improved customer access 24/7 and better data management are just some of the benefits that have improved government service delivery.

However, the dysfunction of which Clement speaks refers not to the obvious successes of solving old problems better, but rather meeting an entirely different set of circumstances that global transformation is now thrusting upon governments -- problems that appear as challenges requiring new solutions on top of all the legacy solutions for old traditional problems.

He doesn't delineate challenges as they exist for local governments per say. Yet it is here that the cracks become most obvious, especially if we think of local government as the activity that most directly shapes the health and prosperity of the communities in which we live. Traditionally local governments did much to attract and foster the industries that created employment and wealth for a municipality. They built the infrastructure of our towns and cities that has in large measure defined how we live our lives. They educated new generations so social progress continued to be made. And they maintained law and order, protecting citizens and thereby helping the honest to live decent and productive lives.

Today, however, the traditional role of local government is increasingly challenged by trends and forces over which they seemingly have little effective control. In some ways, local communities are like a ship on the high seas being battered and tossed by hurricane winds and waves ---- a tempest of change. Except the fierce winds have risen slowly, so their growing ferocity has scarcely been noticed. The result is that what once would have been viewed as a social calamity now passes for normal.

Drugs seemingly pour into the country virtually unchecked, making billions for international drug cartels. This fuels increasingly high crime rates, with millions now housed in prisons at public expense. And it spurs gang violence, dangerous streets, and cancerous sub-cultures of questionable social contributions. Local governments directly face the effects year after year.

Terrorism has become the primary vehicle for waging war against America. People plotting in secret on the other side of the globe how have placed tremendous new burdens upon local governments in the U.S., which now must prepare to meet a wide range of possible terrorist tactics aimed at a multitude of possible targets.

The economic prosperity of most towns or cities is increasingly challenged by foreign competition from places like India and China. Even corporations that were once staunchly viewed as American have become global concerns operating in a global context. And they continue to take advantage of cheaper skilled labor markets and new industrial bases overseas, operating as truly international enterprises serving multiple markets.

Civil actions now clog American courts and drive costs for medical services and commercial enterprises higher and higher. Seeking justice and resolving disputes has become a lengthy and costly exercise for all concerned. (Only criminal proceedings demand that the accused receive a speedy trial.) So, for example, while medical science continues to advance, the delivery of this health care to both rich and poor has become increasingly problematic.

The list goes on and on. But in essence what local government increasingly must deal with are problems created by forces far removed from their traditional realm of responsibility.

Crime being organized and run from overseas -- everything from drugs to computer fraud and identity theft reaching into their communities. Competition from overseas eroding the community's prosperity in a free-trade environment, which in turn affects local government budgets. A global terrorist war brought down to the street of America. Immigration policies that leave immigration laws only sporadically enforced.

However, if the economic and social scene seems increasingly chaotic from a local perspective, part of the problem might be that we continue to think of local government responsibilities largely in terms of jurisdictions defined by a two-dimensional map.

However, as the world transforms, the very meaning of "local" changes. Local competition may be in China. Local fraud may be originating from Nigeria. And local terrorist threats may come from a cave along the Afghanistan border.

The world has become a multi-dimensional reality where connections -- and therefore cause and effect -- don't necessarily follow a linear map.

Local government must discover new ways to operate in that multi-dimensional reality and this may well require that it redefine itself in quite a different way. Local concerns can embrace issues and activities that are beyond even the traditional scope of the federal government for the simple reason that these issues and activities can impact greatly on the day-to-day life of the community.

In a global economy, ever more closely linked through IT and communication technologies, local governments perhaps have to begin to take on the dimensions of a multi-national entity. It is not just the geographical map that matters any more, but also a 4th dimensional map of forces, causes and connections.

Any community should ultimately have a high degree of control over its own destiny, just as any group should. It should be able to survive and prosper based on its ability to adapt to change and to rise to meet new challenges.

When traditional roles hinder that ability, then the result is dysfunction. And the fix requires more than just cosmetic change or greater efficiency in implementing old solutions.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor