Desert Discourse

The Center for Digital Government's second annual meeting on public leadership yielded more than its share of provocative ideas.

by / January 6, 2004
Photo: George Newstrom

The two-day event in November 2003 -- dubbed Re:Public II -- drew a diverse group of elected officials, government leaders, technology experts and educators to ponder the future of governance. Held in Tucson, Ariz., the meeting covered plenty of ground -- from shifting economic models and protectionism, to education reform and its impact on future work forces.

Michael Cox, senior vice president and chief economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, predicted that waves of change triggered by the Internet and telecommunications technology will ripple through workplaces and communities.

High-speed connectivity is freeing many people to work from wherever they want and during whatever hours they choose. That will result in citizens abandoning large cities created during the Industrial Age in favor of the countryside, according to Cox. He believes the trend ultimately means fewer big governments and more small ones.

Cox, author of Myths of Rich and Poor: Why We're Better Off Than We Think, also contended that increasingly mobile workers will spark greater competition among government jurisdictions.

"There will be pressure on state governments to deliver services relative to tax dollars," he said. "Citizens will easily be able to move to states with better services for taxes."

But the same technologies that allow citizens to work from home also threaten to drain communities of high paying IT jobs, as occupations like software development become readily transferable to lower-wage countries.

Participants at the two-day conference, sponsored by the Center for Digital Government, spent a good amount of time debating which types of occupations would be ripe for export versus jobs that would have to stay put.

"Anything you can do on the Internet, is one that could disappear," said George Newstrom, Virginia's secretary of technology.

Cox suggested health care and auto repair as occupations that must be performed locally. He added that U.S. employers are beginning to demand new talents from their workers. Instead of analytical skills or formulaic intelligence, companies want workers with imagination, humor and people skills.

"Technology has become a commodity," Cox said. "What's valuable is imagination to do things with that technology."

Those changing requirements strengthen the tie between economic development and education. Several speakers noted that bright, creative and well-educated work forces are becoming just as much of a draw to employers as financial incentives and traditional infrastructure.

"Education is vital to economic development," said Sen. Kip Holden of Louisiana. "That's as important as building a road for a company."

But producing better-educated, more creative workers will demand fundamental changes in the classroom, said George Beard, a professor at Portland State University's Mark O. Hatfield School of Government.

"We may have to defy the bureaucracy to make the progress we need," he said. "We have a 19th-century model for delivery of education."

Beard contends schools should use Internet technology to link to teachers in other countries for foreign language instruction, and they should reach out to the corporate community for business curriculum.

"In a world where we're networked, why do we persist in trying to centralize authority?" he said. " We're trying to budget our way through an out-of-date teaching model."
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