TCS Daily


Networks Transformed

By Kent Lassman - January 13, 2003 12:00 AM

The 108th Congress convened last week. Traditions were maintained, oaths were administered and, outwardly, there was little evidence of an evolution in governance. However, rules in the House give Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) the authority to name members to a new select committee on homeland security. As if they have a life of their own, governing institutions continue to evolve.

The evolution means that age-old ideas like the separation of powers and federalism are in for change. And while change rarely comes easily, it is inevitable. Today, the deployment and management of new information technology resources combined with a far-reaching demand for homeland security, are catalysts for a potentially long-lasting change in the relationships among citizens, localities and the federal government.

Governance - the methods we use to organize the institutions, information and individuals who make policy decisions - must respond as well. Already, digital technologies spread throughout governments at all levels have transformed the day-to-day processes and the institutions of government from within. In addition, homeland security continues to reshape priorities at every level of government. For example, the select committee of the House will likely become permanent in the next Congress.

No single source of political power can meet tomorrow's challenges alone. As a signal of the emerging connectedness among governments, President Bush recently signed homeland security legislation and the E-Government Act of 2002.

The focus on the Homeland Security legislation has been the creation of a new cabinet department. However, for nearly 18 months the trench work has been to develop new ways to distribute authority and responsibility. The imperative for Secretary-designate Ridge and his state and municipal counterparts is to develop new systems for cooperation and the coordination of massive amounts of information.

As a former governor and legislator, Ridge is acutely aware of the difficulties that exist working across established bureaucracies. Cooperation is a novel idea and a seldom-practiced virtue in public life.

Looking to the future, consider that Ridge must regularly reach state directors of homeland security and their governors, public health and transportation officials at the municipal and state levels of government and a host of other public and private sector leaders. His purpose: to collect, organize, and disseminate vast amounts of time-sensitive information.

In part, more cooperation and coordination are necessary because of the nature of terrorism itself. While terrorists strike at a target in a particular location the effects of the attack are simultaneously local, regional and national. Likewise, the public resources needed to prevent or, if necessary, respond to an attack are marshaled by multiple levels of government.

This was true of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, the Centennial Park bombing at the Atlanta Olympics and the attacks on September 11, 2001. Each attack had immediate national effects while nearly all of the immediate crisis management activity was performed locally by a combination of local, state and federal responders.

This national effect is in part due to the complex networks that connect American society. These networks are physical like the roads, rails, telephone and electric wires. Equally important, our networks are also social, commercial and technological webs, or networks of relationships.

Overlapping networks meet many public needs. For example, mental health and childcare services are rendered through a combination of public, private and non-profit providers. In principle, this is the organizational cornerstone for the reliance on "faith-based-initiatives" in the President's vision for compassionate conservatism in action. Digital technologies have a growing role to facilitate networked solutions, be they food bank distributions or a local bank that tracks money laundering.

Among the provisions of the recent e-government legislation are changes in federal security and procurement rules. As a result, it is easier for state and local governments to use federal contracting procedures. This feature opens the door to new collaboration among levels of government - the creation of networked solutions - for complex problems like homeland security or immigration. One recent report estimates federal e-government spending to top five billion dollars by fiscal 2007.

The procurement changes will initially seem subtle. But they will fundamentally affect relationships among public institutions. The relationships among municipal, state and federal government as well as agencies within these levels of government are reorganizing to face the challenges of a war on terror, and the success of the reorganization depends on digital technologies.

Restructured government institutions necessarily mean the emergence of new political dynamics. Laws will continue to evolve. Oversight mechanisms will be refined. New relationships and networks of authority between state and federal officials - including novel funding and oversight mechanisms between otherwise turf-conscious bureaucracies - should emerge.

Together, these changes may constitute a fundamental change in federalism. Our challenge is to allow the federalists' impulse to separate powers to inform networked governance and the war on terror.

Kent Lassman is a research fellow and the director of the Digital Policy Network at The Progress & Freedom Foundation. He is the author of The Digital State 2002.
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