The Net Generation and a new era of governance

"Transforming American Governance: Rebooting the Public Square,” an anthology edited by Alan Balutis (read an interview here), Terry Buss and Dwight Ink, describes the challenges and changes that are shaping a new era of governance. The following material is excerpted and adapted from the book, which was published by M. E. Sharpe as part of the National Academy of Public Administration’s Transformational Trends in Governance and Democracy.

New fiscal realities

Our nation faces a large — and growing — long-term fiscal imbalance driven by an aging population, which will dramatically increase health care and retirement costs. “The government is on an unstable path,” states the recently released Federal Government’s Financial Health report. This report, prepared by the U.S. Treasury Department and Office of Management and Budget with the assistance of the Government Accountability Office, puts the challenge in stark terms:

“This…is the year in which the first of the approximately 80 million baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — become eligible to draw Social Security benefits. [The projected long-term costs of] scheduled Social Security and Medicare benefits, together with other federal programs, are much greater than the resources (revenue and borrowings) available to pay for them. Unless action is taken to bring program costs in line with available resources, the coming surge of entitlement spending will end in a fiscal train wreck that will have an adverse effect on the U.S. economy and on virtually every American.”

In 2019, the Medicare Part A trust fund, which finances inpatient hospital services for elderly Americans, will not have enough money to pay full benefits. In 2080, the total cost of government will be more than three times the revenue.

Other challenges

The president and Congress certainly face other challenges: the continuing war on terrorism, increasing economic competition from emerging world powers such as China and India, rising energy costs, environmental concerns, and unknown new problems and threats. As the baby boom generation retires and health care costs rapidly rise, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs — as well as interest on the national debt — will account for a growing portion of government cost, creating immense budget pressure on initiatives to fund the other challenges. Interest on the debt in fiscal 2010 totaled more than $260 billion — about what was spent by the U.S. departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and Justice combined.

Any one of the challenges would be a large enough agenda for our legislature and the administration. Their convergence creates an environment of unparalleled complication for the president and government management. Just look at the partial list of 21st-century challenges prepared by GAO.

  • Large and growing long-term fiscal imbalance.
  • Evolving national and homeland security policies.
  • Increasing global interdependence.
  • The changing economy.
  • Demographic shifts.
  • Science and technology advances.
  • Quality-of-life trends.
  • Diverse governance structures and tools.

The nation, then, has no shortage of problems to solve. The question is whether it will adopt new approaches to the management of government to meet the challenges it faces. Facing these challenges will require a “changed” government, a 21st-century government transformed to operate on demand. With confidence in government at a historic low, the time for action is now.

Moving toward a transformed government

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we heard again and again that government needs to be better managed. “Everything has changed” was the constant refrain. “Never has American history seen a time when management has been more important but the stock of new ideas has been so low,” argued Professor Donald Kettl of the University of Pennsylvania (now at the University of Maryland).

What characteristics would a transformed 21st-century government have? Although the outline of such a government is becoming clearer, the literature has yet to describe a real model. What are some of the elements of such a government? In the past few years, several texts — “The Connected Republic 2.0” from Cisco, “The End of Government…as We Know It” by Elaine Kamarck, Kettl’s “The Next Government of the United States” and others — have offered various visions.

Several trends are transforming government: (1) the “rules of the game” are changing in human capital, financial management and organizational structure; (2) performance management is increasingly used; (3) governments are taking market-based approaches, such as competition, choice and incentives; (4) government is moving from business as usual to performing on demand; (5) citizens are becoming more engaged; and (6) governments are using collaborative networks and partnerships to deliver services and solutions.

These trends — and the formidable challenges facing the nation — will drive government to reconfigure itself to serve the needs of its citizens in the 21st century. As Kettl has put it, “At the core is a fundamental problem: The current conduct of American government is a poor match for the problems it must solve.”

Thus, Kettl notes five imperatives for the performance of government in the 21st century: (1) a policy agenda that focuses more on problems than on structures; (2) political accountability that works more through results than processes; (3) public administration that functions more organically through heterarchy rather than rigidly through hierarchy; (4) political leadership that works more by leveraging action than simply making decisions; and (5) citizenship that works more through engagement than remoteness.

A new, transformed, on-demand government would have different characteristics from today’s government. It would be responsive, agile, resilient, flexible, dynamic, flatter, more connected, less hierarchical, seamless, more personalized and transparent.

Such a transformed government might deliver services by three different approaches to policy implementation: reinvented government, government by network and government by market.

A unique convergence

Those trends will drastically affect what it is like to work in the public sector. New forms of coordination and control will evolve. Governments will place a premium on the skills of orchestration and facilitation and the ability to recognize the credibility and authority of sources of policy insight and advice outside the formal structures of the public sector. New accountability methods will be developed to match the radically dispersed and collaborative nature of public-purpose work. Governments will need to make their own workplaces flatter, more connected, less hierarchical, and more in tune with the values and behavior of the talented people who need to be attracted to the public sector.

That is the general conclusion of the experts assembled in “Transforming American Governance.” Some of the difficulty we face today is the result of the industrial era model upon which our government is based. In accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama put it starkly when he said, "We cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy."

A study in 2010 by the Pew Research Center noted: "Rather than an activist government to deal with the nation's problems, the public now wants government reformed, and growing numbers want its power curtailed." A number of our authors argue that the answers lie not in government, but in the capacity of the public to innovate and problem-solve, in new models of government, in new organization or in new technologies.

Fortunately, there is now a unique convergence between current challenges, the need for government to act in fundamentally different ways, a generational shift in executive ranks and powerful new collaborative technologies. This 21st-century government will need to be flexible, agile, able to quickly adjust, and ruthless in reallocating resources to new opportunities and challenges. Power and decision-making will need to be pushed down the organization as much as possible rather than concentrated at the top. Traditional bureaucratic structures will have to be replaced with ad hoc teams of peers who come together to tackle projects and then disband. Information gathering will be broader and more inclusive. New mechanisms will need to be created for harnessing the wisdom of crowds.

And the Net Generation, with its inherently more collaborative and IT-savvy nature, will embrace and enable the changes.

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