Governing into Adversity
What will we do the morning after?
It has all been prelude. That's true of the last five to seven years of experimentation with the Internet, as well as the preceding four decades of automation of government processes. It has all led to this more painful than promising moment -- the end of what the Wall Street Journal documented as 15 years of budgetary and program expansion in state government.
Indeed, cumulative revenue shortfalls in 48 states are perilously close to 20 percent of the respective state general funds. In California, Gov. Gray Davis pegged the state's current budget shortfall at a breathtaking $34.8 billion -- an amount greater than the entire budgets of every state but New York.
Across the country, state executives and legislatures vow to face the fiscal crisis head-on -- with proposals to lay off state employees, release nonviolent convicts from state penitentiaries, ratchet up eligibility requirements for public assistance, cut programs, and close government offices and facilities.
Washington state Gov. Gary Locke introduced a budget proposal first articulated in his state's digital government strategy -- meeting citizen expectations, viewing state government as a single enterprise, achieving results at less cost and consolidating similar activities from across different agencies.
The purpose of these fiscal face-offs across states is to meet constitutional requirements for balanced budgets, while keeping one eye on the 2004 election cycle. Beyond that, some political leaders aspire to Henry Kissinger's definition of a hero -- those who "define themselves by the judgment of a future they see as their task to bring about."
Robert Bourassa, a former premier of Quebec province, was acutely aware of such judgment. When cajoled by advisers to boldly silence critics of the day, Bourassa asked, "Puis le lendemain, on fait quoi?" (What will we do the morning after?)
The co-founders of Intel have some important things to say about that future. To illustrate that our times are marked by changes "so powerful it fundamentally alters the way business gets done," Andy Grove adapted the mathematical formulation of a strategic inflection point. Exhibit one in his argument is the Internet.
A couple of Gordon Moore's observations were elevated to the status of "laws." In the lesser known of those laws, he observes that we ride out of a recession on different technology than that on which we rode in -- if we rode in on the portal, we ride out on Web services, so the thinking goes.
The idea deserves broader application; particularly as the public sector fiscal crisis makes possible discussions and scenarios that were nonstarters when state treasuries were relatively flush. In that context, we rode into the recession at the end of the analog government era, characterized by policies and practices developed over the last 200 years -- around bricks, mortar, paper and employee-intensive processes.
So what will we do the morning after?
For those who see the current public-sector fiscal crisis as structural, digital government offers a starting point for the next 200 years. If the right budgetary bets are made in 2003, government can begin to escape fiscal morass through future-oriented strategies for delivering core public services. In many jurisdictions, those strategies are in place.
Given the blanket of noise generated in the budget debate, the challenge is staying the course -- by providing incentives to drive volumes of routine transactions to less expensive self-service channels; by ensuring such channels are available and scalable; by partnering to reduce fraud and optimize rightfully owed tax revenues -- while ensuring safety nets for those who require face-to-face assistance.
Answering the Bourassa question isn't easy. Just ask America's aerospace leaders. With last year's cancellation of the sonic cruiser -- the first original jetliner design in 50 years and touted as the plane that "will change the way the world flies" -- industry observers questioned whether Boeing "lost both its courage and its touch." In defying Moore's logic, Boeing pointed to both systemic problems in the airline industry and customers who wanted fuel-efficient buses with wings -- not to change the world.
Contrast Boeing's "new frontiers forever" motto from the sonic-cruiser days with that of NASA -- "back to the moon, on to Mars" -- the latter tinged with regret for the last 30 years without lunar landing.
Digital government is not rocket science. It is a bet that the sun will rise in the morning.