Eye on the States: Reading the future is risky business

Thomas Davies

Nothing is more humbling than trying to foresee the future in state and local government. Here's what is keeping everyone -- especially yours truly ? on their toes:

  • California's referendums and recall elections

  • Governors from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Utah being appointed to federal cabinet positions

  • Alabama's newly elected Republican governor approaching voters with historically unprecedented initiatives to raise taxes in the middle of an economic downturn.

There is no such thing as a predictable turn of events for the states. Anyone that tells you differently either is kidding himself or hasn't been around long enough to see events unfold. Homeland security is a case in point.

Maybe others knew how the states would respond to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but I sure didn't. Much of what I expected to happen simply hasn't.

For example, by now I expected at least half a dozen governors to be in contention as national leaders in homeland security. If something as relatively obtuse as e-government could get so many governors to work overtime for the title of "leading technology governor," then a critical issue such as homeland security should bring out the competitive spirit in everyone. That prognosis was set aside when then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge was tapped to head up the Homeland Security Department.

Then, I was convinced it was only a matter of time before other state leaders would emerge to follow in Ridge's footsteps. But here we are two years later, and I'm hard pressed to identify any governor who aspires to be known as the "homeland security governor."

Many have been surprised by the lack of funding for homeland security in the states. Others have been surprised by how little information sharing is taking place. Others still are surprised by the states' vulnerability to serious threats. In hindsight, the states' response to Sept. 11 demonstrates just how tricky the state and local government tea leaves are to read.

One lesson learned is the importance of unanticipated circumstances. Governors probably would admit their agendas often aren't their own. They, too, must respond -- in some cases with great urgency -- to the unforeseen. And it is these circumstances that determine the direction of a state government more than well-thought-out policies and priorities.

A second lesson learned is that political calculus, mission and policy trump technology. Just because technology can be used to address homeland security needs doesn't mean it will be. State leaders will not deploy technology, even if funding is available, without first ensuring it fits with political ambitions, agency missions and state policies.

Another lesson learned is that nothing takes place in a vacuum in state and local government. Governors can't drop everything to focus on any one issue. Unprecedented budget deficits, rising health care costs and looming federal mandates all compete for their attention. Predicting how state leaders will respond to any one issue requires anticipating how the mix will come together to drive the agendas.

Lastly, issues such as homeland security are difficult for the states, because deciding how much security is enough isn't easy. Without clear-cut national standards for security, states not only lack a performance guide, but they also lack a way to measure progress.

The performance records of the states is rarely good when there is no foundation for a state-by-state comparison to national standards -- and thus no measurement by which state officials can be held accountable.

So keep these lessons in mind the next time someone asks you what's going to happen in the states. I know I will.

Thomas Davies is senior vice president at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va. His e-mail address is tdavies@currentanalysis.com.

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