You wake up one morning to find someone standing in your flower bed, flattening the petunias. He's from the state, he says, and he's just checking on a few things. Someone else is digging up your driveway. A fellow from Washington, D.C., invites people to your house for dinner. Nobody asked your permission and nobody offers to pay.
When you're local government, it can seem like nobody pays any attention to your picket fence, your local ordinances, or your authority. You are accused of being the burr under the saddle of global prosperity and universal good times.
Telecommunications companies are tearing up your streets and demanding use of your utility poles. Your neighbors are buying clothing on the Internet from companies that don't pay sales taxes. Residents are gambling and downloading pornography, both of which are illegal by local ordinance.
It's not that you're badly managed or obsolete, it's just that you're running into the Information Age. As some of America's best-run businesses have discovered, that changes everything.
To survive in an online world, businesses, from brokerage houses to banks, have had to establish electronic versions of themselves that compete with their own established businesses -- stealing customers from themselves, undercutting their own prices -- the idea gives corporate CEOs fits. It undermines their established businesses and until (or unless) the electronic version reaches profitability, it's a lose-lose proposition. However, even the most traditional business knows that if it doesn't get on the Internet, it will disappear.
For government, it means that even the public sector can be left behind. For example, while the U.S. Postal Service got busy trying to compete with FedEx and UPS for package delivery, it failed to notice that e-mail was eating up first-class paper-mail volume. The Swedish postal service, in contrast, saw the reality of e-mail and began providing free e-mail accounts to citizens.
Citizens have more choices today than they've ever had -- for education, for information, for shopping, what they eat, how they communicate, which bookstore they frequent and with whom they associate. Like their business counterparts, many state and local governments are putting up electronic versions of themselves -- offering online information and services and one-stop service not obtainable over the counter, as an adjunct to the traditional service model. And just as private-sector businesses have found, this can be an unsettling process for government.
However, local government is still on the front lines of community; and as businesses such as Barnes and Noble have found, the combination of Web site and brick-and-mortar storefront is more useful than either alone. Twenty-four-hour service is available on the Web, but if you prefer, there's a building staffed with helpful people from the community.
Likewise, community residents will always need on-the-ground local government services. Police and fire protection, roads and bridges, zoning, licensing, schools and utilities are still necessities in any community. In the rush to the online world, however, it seems as if only local government is concerned about how those necessities will be paid for.
Recently, at the annual meeting of the National Association of Counties, outgoing president Betty Lou Ward -- who has actively pushed a technology agenda for NACo -- ran into the future in the form of Alvin Toffler. One of the world's most renowned futurists, Toffler said that online sale of products and merchandise shouldn't be taxed. Electronic commerce shouldn't be slowed or stopped.
Ward, who spent her year in office fighting for online taxes to generate revenue for local governments to provide key services, glared at Toffler. "There are individuals who understand the dilemma we are in, and they do listen," Ward said. "But in terms of technology ... we still have a ways to go."
At the NACo convention, Ward passed her presidential gavel to Howard County, Md., Council Member C. Vernon Gray, who seems ready to follow Ward on the technological road although he is still in for a battle. But with people like Gray, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and South Bay, Fla., Mayor Clarence Anthony guiding local government organizations, at least local governments will have the leadership to confront the technology challenges that await.
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