Government and the Big Unknowns

We don't know what kind of huge, transformation events are coming, but one thing is certain: Governments will have to be ready to deal with them.
by , | October 11, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Governing's 25th anniversary is this month. To mark that milestone, we asked leaders in various fields for their thoughts on how government will change in the next 25 years. Their responses, presented in the current issue of the magazine, are intelligent and informed. For example, Scott Smith, the mayor of Mesa, Ariz., sees our current tax structure as "a complete mess" and predicts that we'll overhaul it in ways that broaden the base, lower rates and probably shift to more of a consumption tax than a sales tax. Among other examples of current issues these leaders address are federal financing for transportation infrastructure, pension funding, the evolution of public-sector unions and the coming to fruition of the e-government transformation.

The frame of reference these leaders use to think about the future is entirely reasonable and appropriate, but there is a different, more powerful frame, one I encountered nearly 15 years ago, that I've never forgotten. Tom Downs was just ending his stint as president of Amtrak, and had been invited to give the keynote address at a government-management conference at the University of Kansas. Downs, who had graduated from the MPA program at KU in the 1960s after returning from service in Vietnam, was given as the topic of his address: "The Job Description of the American Professional Local Government Manager in 2020."

Tom Downs  
 Tom Downs
Downs' main theme still sticks in my mind and influences my thinking all these years later: that while it was impossible to predict what would happen between then and 2020, it would fall to government to cope with those major unforeseen events.

Downs listed several huge transformational events we did not anticipate, among them Pearl Harbor and the antiwar and civil-rights turmoil of the 1960s. He closed with two prognostications: "Before 2020, we will experience some major change of the magnitude of World War II or the '60s. And citizens will still be demanding the same basic services. ... Those who can't or don't take care of the fundamentals will have no chance of success when the 'big change' occurs."

He was right, of course. At least two "major changes" have occurred since he gave that speech--the attacks of 9/11 and the Great Recession--and we're still eight years out from 2020. While we can never anticipate events like these, we know we will need the legitimacy of government to be able to deal with them. Government earns that legitimacy by steadily, competently carrying out the mundane but essential tasks required of it: maintaining the streets and sewers, issuing driver's licenses, responding to police calls, seeing that the trash is picked up.

Ester Fuchs of Columbia University makes a similar point--connecting efficient, effective service delivery to the legitimacy of government--in a recent article in the Journal of International Affairs. She writes, "If citizens cannot connect government to the lives of their communities in a positive way, it becomes difficult for them to accept the authority of the government."

Between now and Governing's 50th anniversary in 2037, we certainly will need to deal with the issues raised by the leaders the magazine interviewed. But huge, transformational and unpredictable events are coming, and it is vitally important to retain and build the capacity of our governments to deal with them as well.