How Local Government Will Devolve…and Become Much, Much Better

A drawing of how pools of people feel that their contribution matters in centralized versus decentralized systems.

Recently I’ve talked about the dysfunction in our education system and how that links with workforce development. All of this is tipping a balance of power from the demand side of the equation (“There’s ten more people who want this job”) to the supply side (“I’ve got the skills you need, so let’s talk.”) This will drive a change in social power structures—downward.

Let me explain.

Political power is devolving from massively centralized structures to a loosely knit network of community federations.

This follows a historical course. For example, during the Middle Ages feudal kingdoms ruled.  People believed that the authority vested in kings was divinely given. As people’s beliefs changed and they began to value mercantilism and individual responsibility over “divine rights,” kings were dethroned in favor of democratic nation states.

This process is occurring again. The Occupy and Tea Party movements indicate that our centralized, representative democracy is perilously close to reformation.

What makes this reformation even more likely is that historically, our communication technology has driven and reinforced changes in governance. We’ve seen four basic shifts in beliefs associated with changes in communications technology:

  1. Oral traditional and tribalism (BC to 1500 AD)
  2. Print tradition and nation states (1500-1950)
  3. Broadcast and global invaders (1950-2010)
  4. Digital age and global microcosm (2011-)

What type of government will emerge as a result of our changing belief systems (purpose-driven behavior; intentional action for the larger good; a future orientation) and our digital communication era?

We don’t quite know yet, but it will be vastly different from our collective experience of the past 500 years. And I expect it will look something like a new “operating system” for local government. The Libertarian and Occupy movements in the US are the quintessential examples: both see the dominance of highly centralized systems running contrary to their sense of purpose and the sovereignty of the individual. (Although, the Libertarians’ boogeyman is “government” and Occupy’s boogeyman is “corptocracy,” those are just two sides of the same power coin in my humble opinion.)

I predict a speed-up in the devolution of centralized power with more and more power flowing back to the community level.

I see three things coming:

1. Smaller, better government

At some point in growth, administrative systems become sub-optimal.  My friend Duane Elgin  describes this as a limit to large organizational systems.  I think we have reached that point of sub-optimization at the state and local levels.  We spend more energy on coordinating things than getting things done. If you don’t believe me, go down to City Hall and ask for an explanation of a policy.

We need to cut the cost of governance down by 35% at least, and focus on effectiveness. In 2013, the city of Fort Collins, CO won an innovation award for managing the city while balancing efficiency and sustainability. This is the kind of efficient, outcome-oriented scorecard you’ll continue to see in cities’ future.

2. Co-production of services

As our communities become more diverse, local government cannot afford to do all things for all citizens. Instead, we’ll see governance systems that teach people how to do things like energy conservation, environmental protection, learning, job training and yes, preventive health care. Citizens control the quality and level of service. Government will stop doing things for citizens, and do more things with them. Government will provide the platform; citizens will help build the innovations. Hackathons and time banks are two excellent examples of how this is already occurring.

3. Community based government

Frankly, a representative form of governance has become outmoded.  Why can’t citizens dial in to a council meeting and ask question, even vote?  There is no longer a technical barrier to citizen participation, it is purely political.  Want to reduce government overhead?  Start by getting rid of 50% of elected officials and replace them with on-line discussion groups and webcasts.  We have figured out to do this in education and health care.  Why not governance?

We are facing major transformations in education, workforce development, and governance. This has been the ‘what’ part of what the future holds. Next, I’ll get to the ‘how’ beginning with looking at leadership skills and practices.

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