by Craig Ruff, President

This Advisor is a commentary on the context of the devolution revolution — the shifting of responsibilities from larger, national loci of power to lower levels of government. private entities, the community, the neighborhood, home, and the individual.

Thrusting power downward — by delegating a federal welfare program’s administration to Lansing, shifting the setting of K – 12 curricula from the state board of education to local school boards, or moving police beats from City Hall to neighborhoods — rests within a context of enormous societal change. The devolution revolution flows from a new age in which customization of services, atomization of interests, and integration of functions demand it.

Far from ephemeral, this revolution will resist occasional setbacks, election outcomes, and partisan fortunes and quite possibly endure for decades. Political and other leaders resist devolution at enormous peril; those who embrace it and connect its consequences to their own enterprises and missions will thrive. But hang on, for it will be a bumpy ride.

From the Industrial Knowledge Age

Humanity faces a quantum leap forward. It faces the deepest social upheaval and creative restructuring of all time. Without clearly recognizing it, we are engaged in building a remarkable new civilization from the ground up. This is the meaning of the Third Wave.

Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (1980)

Fifteen years ago Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave hit bookstores. Its title connotes the belief that the world was entering only its third social and economic age: the first was the agricultural age; the second, the industrial age; and the new one is based on knowledge, information, and services. Months before Ronald Reagan evicted Jimmy Carter from the White House, Toffler read the consequences on politics of the third wave this way:

The truly astonishing fact today is that our governments continue to function at all. No corporation president would try to run a large company with a table of organization first sketched by the quill pen of some eighteenth‐​century ancestor whose sole managerial experience consisted of running a farm. No sane pilot would attempt to fly a supersonic jet with the antique navigation and control instruments available to Bleriot or Lindbergh. Yet this is approximately what we are trying to do politically.… This, then, is the single most important political issue facing us: the obsolescence of our most basic political and governmental institutions.

Toffler wrote subsequent books, most notably Power Shift, discussing the historic transition. Along with John Naisbitt (Megatrends), Peter Drucker (New Realities), Isaac Asimov, Edward Deming, James Fallows, Tom Peters, George Gilder, and many other keen observers of science and technology, business, the military, and politics, Toffler has convinced many of us that seismic changes in the way we live, work, play, and govern ourselves are not figments of our imagination but very real and based on extraordinary conditions.

An essay of this length does minimal justice to the ubiquitous implications and profound observations of the above writers. To begin to place the devolution revolution in context, three signal changes in our lives merit emphasis. They explain a steady decline in the relative importance of efficiency through mass production — the hallmark of the industrial age — and a surge in individual freedom heretofore impossible to achieve in Stone Age, feudal, and capitalist economies.

From Standardization to Customization

To be efficient, industrialists produced standardized goods, the archetype of which was the Model T Ford. One car, color, engine, and shape fit all: The ultimate public‐​private good, it was accessible to everyone at a price nearly everyone could afford. Mass media serve as another example of standardization, starting with Gutenberg, joined later by pamphleteers, and ending with CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, public broadcasting, and USA Today. One newscast, editorial, cartoon, comedy, and drama fit all. Mass information standardized thoughts and propaganda, tools both of autocrats in power as well as revolutionaries seeking their ouster.

You may notice that standardized products are giving way to customized goods and services. Cars come in every color of the rainbow; they will be designed soon in showrooms by purchasers working at computer terminals. Consumers are eschewing mass media for niche radio and television programming, specialized magazines, and on‐​line computer services. Prime time viewers of the once dominant Big Three television networks have plummeted by 25 percent since 1980. Americans rebel against antiquated notions that national news is only accessible at 6:30 p.m. or that Time provides all the economic coverage necessary to prosper in business.

Some trends find increasing standardization within industries, but the final end‐​user receives more customized goods and services. For example, twenty years ago scores of customized computer operating systems had been deployed and many more were in development. With enormous velocity, we saw the propagation stemmed and the emergence of a handful of standardized operating systems including UNIX, Windows, and OS/​2. Such systems permit a wider variety of end products, such as desktop publishing and word processing, than did earlier generations of less standardized and more diffused operating systems.

This is but one example of a standardized means with customized ends. But it is vastly different from standardized products (ends) such as the Model T.

Customization is replacing standardization. More expensive to produce, customized goods and services cost more but the consumer gets precisely what is wanted, when it is wanted.

From Centralization to Automization

To be efficient, industrialists centralized customer outlets, operations, spans of control, and authorities. Movies rolled into cities playing to several hundred if not several thousand fans in majestic, spacious halls. Retailers hovered first in dense quarters of urban downtowns. Running out of room to accommodate ever‐​growing numbers of competitors and customer traffic, and with the assistance of inexpensive suburban land and newly built government‐​subsidized freeways, retailers fled to 50‐​acre shopping malls on the outskirts of town.

Other public places thrived: the symphony hall, grand parks, and museums. Banking was conducted in pillared, marble‐​floored mausoleums with many tellers and queues. Only royalty in the agrarian age enjoyed elegance, opulence, and spaciousness; the industrial age brought a taste of these to the general public.

The centralized whole is exploding into fragments. When I arrived in Lansing in 1967, I chose from among five movie theaters. Today, I choose among fifty‐​five. Not content with a limited variety of newly released films, Americans shop the video cassettes. For every movie ticket sold in America, six videotapes are rented.

The second highest grossing film of 1994, The Lion King, took in $315 million in movie houses over eight months’ run. In its first 14 days of videotape sales, Disney grossed $450 million. Movie lovers escape the tyranny of restricted choice, the ignominy of waiting in line, rubbing shoulders with scores of others confined in a theater, and the pain of delaying breaks until the movie’s end.

Public places are decaying from desuetude, while home‐​based entertainment, information, and shopping services and tools flourish. Trade stocks on line at home, rather than visit a brokerage office. Call QVC when the VCR dies; why bother finding a parking place at a mall? When was the last time you entered a bank to get cash as opposed to dropping by an automated teller machine?

Centralization of entertainment, information, and services is giving way to atomization, wherein the search for more of what I want, when I want it becomes easy. My interests are not like everyone else’s.

Specialization to Integration

Industrial‐​age corporations and governments followed management science that dictated pyramidal structures of command, response, supervision, and authority. Power lay at the top. Assembly‐​line and other workers fixed on a single task, repeated countless times daily, to perfect skill and produce a product at lowest cost. Efficiency necessitated specialization, which in turn called for hierarchies to organize it.

Toffler cites a politically incorrect entry of the highest order in Henry Ford’s autobiography to epitomize the specialization of industrial age workers. Ford noted that of 7,882 specialized jobs to manufacture a Model T in 1908, “949 required strong able‐​bodied, and practically physically perfect men; 3,338 needed men of merely ordinary physical strength; 670 could be filled by legless men; 2,637 by one‐​legged men; two by armless men; 715 by a one‐​armed man; 10 by blind men; and most of the rest could be performed by women or older children.”

Hierarchies and specialized workers are giving way to decentralized, leaner, and flatter organization charts, matrix management (throwing people at problems rather than vice versa), and versatile, flexible, and free‐​floating human talent. In a complex world we always will need specialists but will reward those who also possess a wide array of general skills, most particularly the ability to communicate knowledge. Not for long can an autocratic manager prosper who suffers nobody else to make a decision.

Titles bearing only supervisory spans of control (director, supervisor, chief) are being changed to skill‐​based terms such as senior economist, coordinating engineer, and advanced technology officer. Savvy managers are orchestrators, not tyrants. They mobilize people of talent who enjoy awesome personal freedom.

By age 40 the typical American has worked for eight different employers. More than one million jobs daily are carried out by temps. A prized employee fulfills many different functions, not just one, each day; the same person leads one team and lends knowledge to three others. A liberal arts degree, mastery of technology, ability to connect one thing to another, and command of written and verbal communications are displacing the gender and physical characteristics of turn‐​of‐​the‐​century job qualifications.

Specialized workers feeding a narrow talent into a rigidly hierarchical order are hopelessly lost in successful postindustrial‐​age organizations. Successors to organizational behemoths are “mom‐​and‐​pop” operations that integrate talents and can move fast to stay ahead of bloated competitors. Big government, like many big businesses, fails to compete.

Hitting Government Between the Eyes

We rationalize if not embrace the bold, new policy directions of Gingrich and Engler and Clark Durant (the Michigan Board of Education’s new chair) by examining the context in which public responsibilities are devolving to lower levels of government, private entities, the community, the neighborhood, home, and the individual.

Customized goods, atomized interests, and integrated skills combine to make government, saddled with industrial‐​era features, increasingly irrelevant: irrelevant to everyday people who count on public and private servers to render quickly and effectively specially targeted solutions to their unique problems. Democracy’s customers cannot but be disappointed by the standardized goods produced by centralized organizations of tenured, classification‐​bound specialists.

Government in America abhors — because its basis and history are profoundly contradictory to — the characteristics of a third wave society: customized service, atomized interests, and integrated, decentralized, and versatile delivery of services. Public cynicism toward politicians frequently is read as indictment of the men and women we elect. The alienation toward government indeed directs itself toward personalities and spawns blood‐​letting “gotchas” such as term limits.

It is not coincidental that we started losing the American dream of good government a quarter‐​century ago, just about the time that we began exiting the industrial era and entering the new age. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election, on the heels of Toffler’s The Third Wave, joined his and many American’s pronounced belief thatgovernment is the problem.

Can Representative Government or Any Government Survive?

The next century’s historians may view term limits as a desultory last gasp by the people to pull American government into a new societal era. Only by rejecting the fundamentals rather than the trappings of current government can we figure out a course that meshes the public and private interests of a new era. To create a government that can govern with credibility the American people confront two overriding questions:

  1. Can the public appetite for satisfying public services be accommodated within representative democracy, wherein agents are elected to broker competing interests, or, if it cannot, can Americans adapt to direct democracy, wherein the people themselves negotiate with one another and decide issues?
  2. Will Americans be able to identify and set boundaries on newly defined communities of common interests or set course on a purely libertarian path in which the individual reigns supreme?

There you have it: few or no elected representatives such as members of Congress, state governors, city councilpersons, and school boards; a neighborhood policeman or a well‐​stocked pantry of defensive weapons. The sooner the general public wrestles with these change versus change options, the sooner society will design a governance that delivers.

The consequences of political stagnation are too dreadful to entertain. We must begin to work through the consequences of change. How do we balance the rights and responsibilities of minority and majority interests? How do we safeguard freedoms when the threat of anarchy seemingly cries out for dictatorial power? How do we finance things such as national defense if we have no federal government or highways if we have no state government or public schools if we have no local government? In the absence of a public purse, how do we provide equal opportunities to people of unequal talent, abilities, and wherewithal? How do we overcome people’s fatigue to engage them fully in determining public policy? Does direct democracy offer more or fewer benefits in the new age than did 18th century‐​based representative democracy?

Where, in the equation of private interests, lies the public good? Can an entirely free and unregulated market meet some group needs? Short term, it is difficult to envision how protection of air and water quality can be vested with individuals or, for that matter, neighborhoods or cities or regions. Longer term, can a society with an anorexic government balance today’s immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption of individuals against the sustainability of the Earth’s resources and transmission of acquired wealth for future generations? Who will protect inherited legacies of art, culture, parks, natural wonders, and public places?

These same questions were asked and answered by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others in the 18th century. Their solutions worked back then and largely throughout the industrial era in which they were born and matured. Soon, those solutions will be buried. Who will bring us the new ones? How will we organize ourselves to weigh and decide new governing structures? How can we recapture the spirit of individual conscience, community interest, and common defense that inspired our industrial age governance to bring back into harmony governance and a society that has accelerated far ahead of it?

The Founding Fathers built a national government from powers ceded by colonial states whose boundaries had been drawn by the English crown. In the 21st century, these boundaries — in the cases of states, arranged along nature’s transportation corridors including rivers and lakes and in the cases of townships, sized to a day’s walk or horse ride — likely will be dismantled. Waterway and horse‐​and‐​carriage routes simply make no sense in an age in which the primary transportation corridors are fiber optic cables and wavelengths.

In an era of devolution of responsibilities, states, counties, cities, villages, and townships merit redesign. Form follows function, and the form and size of government units will change dramatically. A neighborhood is apt to be the initial building block of a new society. Secession movements (the Upper Peninsula, northern California, and Texan cities) along with consolidations (the Plains states and New England) will not seem so fanciful. Dispersing federal agencies throughout the nation may occur fairly soon. Moving the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Des Moines, the Department of Interior to Denver, the Department of Housing and Urban Development to Chicago, and the Environmental Protection Agency to St. Ignace may reunite people and their problems with their federal government.

It is no coincidence that Newt Gingrich and Alvin Toffler talk. Gingrich has no monopoly on wisdom, and Toffler is not always right about what to expect and when to expect it. Political conservatives have a leg up on liberals, inasmuch as they have begun sooner than their foes to acknowledge government’s limits. They may overreach and move too aggressively without bringing the people an understanding of the broader context in which government devolves its responsibilities and services. As Oscar Wilde said: Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old‐​fashioned quite suddenly.

My colleagues who reviewed this essay drew various conclusions and expressed meritorious reservations. David Gruber notes that today’s futurists may be confusing the management of government with the values of government; while the managing of the public business deserves to be dragged into modern times and out of the industrial era, the value of democracy endures in restraining extreme hedonism, protecting individual liberties, and marshalling resources to promote and defend freedom. Correcting the inefficiencies of American governance need not imply that government must self‐destruct.

The concluding views in this paper may seem extreme to those who forget that ten years ago an autocratic Soviet empire controlled eastern Europe and Eurasia. Many months before the Berlin Wall fell, Peter Drucker wrote: Within twenty‐​five years, if not sooner, the Russian Empire too will have disappeared.

When I read The New Realities in the spring of 1989, I was thrown for a loop by Mr. Drucker, amazed that this wise man would prophesy the end of the Evil Empire. When I reread the book this month, I was equally shocked that Drucker’s prophecy had come true not in twenty‐​five years but twenty‐​five weeks.

The devolution revolution is built not on political quicksand but rather on a people whose lives, work, recreation, and home find most government no longer relevant. We are left, as past generations have been, with the vexation of balancing individual gratification with the common‐​weal. History serves up tyrants and heroes who fought over that balance. The difference today is that power has never been so diffused, information has never been so freely disbursed, and delegation of leadership to higher authorities has never been so grudging.

Copyright © 1995