5 Government Trends to Watch

As Governing celebrates its 30th anniversary, here's a few predictions for the next three decades.
October 2017
Today's infrastructure will almost certainly deteriorate further in the next three decades. (Shutterstock)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

This is part of Governing's special 30th anniversary coverage.

We’re nearly at the 20-year mark in writing Governing’s management column, which means we can lay claim to the longest continuously written column in the publication. As Governing celebrates its 30th anniversary, we can’t help but reflect that the first articles we wrote about state and local government predate this magazine. They were originally published in Forbes magazine 35 years ago.

Given that -- and the vast variety of management topics we’ve covered over the past three decades -- we thought, by way of celebration, it would be fun to write five predictions for the next 30 years. So, without further ado, let’s get started.

 

Pension problems will take a backseat.

Many of the concerns about the relationship between the number of working Americans and those who are dependent on their incomes is going to cease being front-page news. The U.S. Department of Commerce tells us that by about 2030 the over-65 population is going to level off at about 38 percent of the total population.

What will that mean? Although 38 percent may still be challenging, the problems aren’t going to get worse. Dramatic shifts in state, local and federal management that are forced by the so-called aging population could easily become a back-burner item before the children born today graduate from high school.

 

Bye-bye, balanced budgets.

Since the notion of balanced budgets in the states is a fallacy -- budgets are generally only in true balance for a matter of months, weeks or even days -- we believe that the varying requirements for balanced budgets are going to disappear as years pass.

What will that mean? The idea of fiscal stability is going to be almost entirely replaced with “fiscal sustainability.” The emphasis on crafting a budget that is mathematically in balance every year will fall by the wayside in favor of budgets that function in ways that allow money to be easily moved to future years when there’s an economic boom. States won’t have to make dramatic programmatic cuts if facing a year where revenues appear to be headed downward.

 

London bridge will fall down.

For years, we’ve been bemoaning that states and localities have allowed their infrastructure to go unmaintained. This has become such a commonplace fact that you barely ever hear the word “infrastructure” when it’s not preceded by the word “crumbling.” (Much like forest fires are always raging.) Notwithstanding whatever comes out of President Trump’s commitment to invest in infrastructure, we think this phenomenon is going to recede into memory -- and not in a good way. At some point, water pipes will be leaking at such a rate that, unfixed, cholera outbreaks could return just like in the bad, old days of London.

What will that mean? Whether it’s increasingly unsafe roads and bridges or faulty water pipes, real human lives will be at stake. There are few things to focus a legislature’s attention better than a growing number of deaths that could have been prevented. One or two bridge collapses don’t do the trick, of course, but when the headlines are full of tragedy, representatives act.

 

Cyberattacks will cost more than just dollars.

State and local governments’ concern about cybersecurity is very real today. The worries are fundamentally about such high-profile challenges as preventing identity theft, securing data and fighting off ransomware. Although IT departments are dedicated to forestalling breaches of public-sector computer systems, we don’t see a great deal of agitation among many elected officials. In the last set of State of the State addresses, for example, only five governors spoke specifically about cybersecurity, and two of those were mostly concerned with the economic development benefits that could come with attracting firms that work in that sector. We believe that it’s inevitable that breaches of the computer systems that run the nation’s support systems -- health care and infrastructure, to name a couple -- will inevitably cost lives. That will matter a whole lot more to public officials than a bunch of Social Security numbers run afoul.

What will that mean? There will, for example, come to pass a time when a successful cyberattack could shut down security systems in prisons and jails or cease the smooth functioning of city stoplight systems that protect us from accidents. When those kinds of things happen, you’ll hear a whole lot more governors dedicate their next term to preventing such problems.

 

All good things eventually come to an end.

This last one may make you sad. It certainly gives us a case of the blues. But we predict, with clear mind and body, that we’ll no longer be writing this column in 30 years. We hope you’ll miss us.

We’ve put a fair amount of thinking into these predictions and are confident that we haven’t missed the mark. In any case, we really like the idea of making long-term predictions, instead of reporting on something that happened last week. After all, nobody can prove us wrong until long after this piece is published. This is a similar advantage to the one enjoyed by the women who work in small storefronts in urban centers, peering into crystal balls and telling people that they’re going to come into a great deal of money, someday.