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Philanthropy Journal – State needs to retool

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By Todd Cohen

Gov. Mike Easley has a rare chance to transform our state.

On the heels of an ugly scramble to plug the $1.5 billion hole in the state budget, North Carolinians are hungry for change.

That hunger, which quickly could turn to anger, gives Easley a brief window of opportunity.

While he did not create bureaucratic gridlock or outdated economic-development policies, his challenge is to move quickly to refocus state government as a nimble competitor that delivers needed services efficiently and gives smart businesses the tools they need to create good jobs.

After taking on sheriffs as a county prosecutor and tobacco companies as attorney general, Easley is no stranger to tough causes.

Now, by thinking big and taking risks, he can take on the government he heads, overhauling it into a competitive and socially responsible enterprise.

Easley’s failed push for a state lottery underscored the futility of the annual hunt for quick fixes for our broken tax system.

To replace the patchwork strategy of scrounging for tax revenue, cutting government jobs, slashing funds for critical services and courting new industry with giveaways, Easley needs to look ahead at the big picture.

Thinking like a CEO and armed with recommendations he will get later this year from two commissions he appointed to review state government’s efficiency and tax structure, Easley should ask the smartest people he can find to help him think out loud.

They should assess the big challenges the state faces, review the decisions and policies that led to our problems, analyze our competitive position, identify the forces likely to affect our future – and create a vision for what the state should be and a strategy for getting there.

That’s precisely the kind of “foresight analysis” that Jim Johnson, a business professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, uses to help corporations and city governments compete in the global economy.

“You are creating your own future and working toward it,” Johnson says. “It forces people to think about the future through a competitive lens and not fall victim to the notion that forecasts based on past trends are inevitable.”

Creating the future, he says, requires shared thinking to find collaborative strategies that tap, foster and connect what he has identified as six basic characteristics of a “healthy, highly competitive community.”

Those range from a socially responsible pro-business climate, strong physical infrastructure and mix of traditional and venture capital to investment in education, promotion of civic involvement and embrace of a diverse population.

The challenge is to boil down complex goals and strategies into a clear and focused vision. The state’s values and assets, for example, should be reflected in a “transparent” government Web site that offers visitors – including businesses that might invest, locate or expand in North Carolina – seamless access to whatever information they need.

“Our state has to figure out how we’re viewed by the outside world,” Johnson says.

By thinking and acting like an entrepreneurial CEO and investing in systemic change, Easley can transform state government into a partner working hand in hand with the for-profit and nonprofit sectors to deliver the services and create the jobs that will make our state a better place to live and work.

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