Eyes on the Future

Thinking far ahead isn’t an easy job for any public official, whether it’s a governor concerned about reelection, a top appointee on temporary leave from private-sector work, or a career manager judged at year’s end by the shape of his agency’s numbers. All of them face powerful pressures to focus on the here-and-now.

But the best governments and the best leaders manage to surmount the temptations of myopia. That’s why it’s a pleasure for Governing to recognize, as its Public Officials of the Year for 1999, an impressive array of leaders who have demonstrated long-term vision as well as short-term competence and management skill.

Michael Leavitt of Utah has not only faced the future—he has compelled his 49 fellow governors to face it. From his first day in office in 1993, Leavitt has raised penetrating questions about the future of American state government, the entire federal system and the political implications of the global market. He has pushed for policies that will position his own state for the 21st century economy. And he has done those things while presiding over one of the most impressively run state governments anywhere in America.

Like states, most local governments can point to a piece of paper representing their vision of the future, out to 2010, 2020, or even further. In many cases, it is little more than a wish list. In Charlotte, North Carolina, however, the city’s long-term master plan is also the basis for organizing the city government today. And the performance measures Charlotte has implemented to track its success have become a model for cities all over the country. Much of this system is the work of Pamela Syfert, Charlotte’s far-sighted city manager.

Commitment to the future can be difficult to maintain. James T. Moore, Florida’s law enforcement commissioner, believed in DNA testing long before its benefits were widely known, and insisted on devoting resources to it over the opposition of many in his state who called it a waste of money. Today, Florida has America’s most sophisticated state DNA database, and has used it to close hundreds of cases that otherwise would have remained unsolved.

James B. Pyers, the finance director of Wooster, Ohio, became convinced that neither Wooster nor other towns like it would be economically secure a generation from now unless they found a way to evaluate their physical assets more accurately. The new system he helped create, in association with the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, will put thousands of local governments on a more secure footing for years to come.

Shirley A. DeLibero could easily have concluded a successful public service career by remaining at the helm of New Jersey Transit, where she had won universal praise for rescuing a troubled public agency. But she never gave up on her dream of building a successful rail transit system in a big city, and when Houston asked her to try, she was unable to resist. So she is beginning the new century in Texas, making crucial decisions about a project whose ultimate benefit to the community will come decades down the road.

Bradley Dugger, Tennessee’s chief information officer, has held that position for the past 13 years—the equivalent of several lifetimes in the information technology field. He was the state’s CIO in the mainframe era of the 1980s; he managed the transition to the Internet in the 1990s. Throughout that long period, Dugger has been a consistent and successful innovator, keeping Tennessee at the front of the pack when it comes to using IT breakthroughs to streamline public management.

Futurism is just one achievement worthy of recognition. An almost equally common theme among this year’s winners is conciliation. When she became speaker of the Ohio House four years ago, Jo Ann Davidson inherited an institution infamous for secrecy and partisan mistrust. She has replaced the bickering and rivalry with an inclusive approach that gives all parties and factions a stake in the outcome. This year, when the legislature managed to enact a complex utility deregulation bill, the consensus was simple: Only Jo Ann could have done it.

William A. Johnson Jr. has practiced a similar “broad-umbrella” politics as mayor of Rochester, New York. When he embarked on an economic redevelopment program, he didn’t impose it from the top: He divided the city into 10 grassroots planning sectors, and began calling upon ordinary citizens for advice. After three years, 70 percent of the citizen recommendations had been implemented—and Rochester’s urban revival was well on the way to success.

Robert E. Roberts and Dr. Robert K. Ross have brought off feats of conciliation that border on the miraculous. Ross, a pediatrician by training, successfully merged a diffuse collection of social and health programs in San Diego County into a single billion-dollar superagency, maintaining the support of clients, activists, elected officials and the general public. Roberts, as the director and guiding spirit of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Council of the States, has forged consensus among environmental officials from all over the country, and has kept them together sufficiently well to make the states a more potent force in national environmental policy than they have ever been before.

Here are profiles of Governing's 1999 Public Officials of the Year:

Jo Ann Davidson, Ohio House of Representatives

Shirley A. Delibero, president, Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority

Bradley S. Dugger, chief of information systems, State of Tennessee

William A. Johnson Jr., mayor, city of Rochester, New York

Michael Leavitt, governor, state of Utah

James T. Moore, commissioner, Florida Department of Law Enforcement

James B. Pyers, director of finance, city of Wooster, Ohio

Robert E. Roberts, executive director, Environmental Council of the States

Dr. Robert K. Ross, director of health and human services, San Diego County

Pamela Syfert, city manager, city of Charlotte, North Carolina