By Guest Columnist AMIR FAROKHI, executive director of Georgia Forward, a non-partisan public policy initiative working to engage leaders to address Georgia’s biggest challenges.
For decades, Georgians have known that ours is a state divided. Whether it is geography, economics, culture, politics or race, Georgia’s divides are frequently lamented.
While Georgia is not alone in this respect among states, other states, from Utah to North Carolina, have learned to silence their doubts and pull together with impressive results.
The shortsightedness caused by our divides has today been magnified by the recession.
Yet, this is an opportunity to leverage Georgia’s assets to build a thriving state for all. To succeed, we have to do things differently. Old approaches and tired political fights are useless because they fall short in a more competitive world.
We know what we need. We must work together to innovate and outsmart our competition. Our kids must be smarter. Our infrastructure must be better. Our government must be more nimble and collaborative.
Here are four steps Georgia must take to succeed.
Georgia will not keep pace with peer states if it remains divided. Although, Metro Atlanta drives over 60 percent of the state’s economy, it will flounder if it is merely an island of success. Without a vibrant agricultural sector and healthy “second” cities, Georgia will find it tough to keep pace with competitors.
Fortunately, both the 2010 transportation bill and wide support for deepening the Port of Savannah show that state leaders have begun to talk across regional and rural-urban lines. Still, we need more cooperation and statewide problem-solving.
Without knowing what we share, efforts to improve our trajectory will be aimless. The first step is to communicate more effectively, understand our shared norms and aspirations and then take each other’s needs seriously. Only then will we be able to develop a statewide vision.
And, while political gamesmanship will be ever-present, our leadership must learn that success requires putting Georgia’s interests above limited political interests. In an era of strained resources and great need, fractiousness creates waste we cannot afford. If our political leadership does not take the lead, the private sector and civil society have an obligation to do so.
Think outside the box:
Today’s world has fewer barriers to information and is more interconnected than at any time in human history. Government may still have power, but policy solutions can often be found at the intersection of government, business and civil society.
Rarely will one sector be able to solve every policy challenge. Government, which is struggling to get smaller, must make better use of both technology and the competencies of the civil and private sectors.
If we fail to harness great ideas that germinate in communities and the private sector, we lose out on powerful, new approaches. Indeed, Georgia’s dynamism does not reside in her government, but in the energy of our businesses and people.
Our people have never lacked boldness and we must encourage them to engage in the task of moving Georgia forward. Government has a vital role protecting the public good and ensuring stability, but it is through shared ideas and resources, that we will find the best policy solutions.
States that succeed will be those that leverage their strengths, invest in quality of life and promote innovation across issue clusters. Georgia has fantastic advantages to leverage, including a world-class city, superb colleges, an appealing climate, abundant land and good transportation infrastructure.
Unfortunately, we have not yet learned how to make all Georgians feel equally invested in these assets. Allowing any region of Georgia to struggle is akin to showing up to a 100-meter dash wearing leg irons. Despite our strengths, we will not win many races until the hobbles come off.
To flourish, we must be expert at producing creative, global minds and graduates with technical skills to fit our industries. We can no longer rely on in-migration to boost our economy. Our peer states are equally attractive to new businesses and residents.
While we have strong higher education and a successful workforce training program, our elementary and secondary education lags. To give Georgia the best chance at long-term success, we must invest in our human capital with a world-class Pre-K through college system. Our key industries and entrepreneurial potential are nothing without the best people.
We cannot afford to continue our provincial habit of measuring ourselves against neighboring states. Augusta is not competing with Montgomery so much as it is with Boulder, Colorado or Hyderabad, India.
To measure Georgia vis-a-vis Mississippi or Virginia does Georgians a disservice. The global talent pool increases daily and is chomping at the bit to capture Georgia’s and America’s 20th century success.
Until we consistently aim to succeed on a global scale, from education to infrastructure to sustainability, we will find ourselves at a competitive disadvantage. Money and opportunity will flow toward innovation. That reality must drive our efforts to build a healthy and prosperous Georgia.
We have a choice as Georgians. We can either build walls around our corners of the state or we can take a step forward and realize that Georgia, like it or not, will lose if we do not cooperate.
Georgia can thrive again. Yet, to thrive, we must broaden our perspective, raise our expectations and work together.
For more information on Georgia Forward, please go to www.georgiaforward.org.