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Reflections from New Center Director

Nothing is certain but death and taxes, and in Oregon, taxes are not as certain as they could be, according to Professor Fred Thompson, who directs Willamette's Center for Governance and Public Policy Research. The center examines a variety of issues that affect Oregon citizens and helps communities make evidence-based decisions, not decisions based on wishful thinking. Fairly often, that wishful thinking involves state revenues.

"Progressive tax structures are, by their nature, volatile, which means that Oregon has one of the most volatile revenue flows in the country," says Thompson, who provided financial consulting for the Department of Defense and once directed the analytic studies unit for the California State Department of Finance. "We end up betting on the future every year with a cloudy crystal ball."

The state constitution requires a balanced budget. If the state comes out ahead, money is returned to citizens. If revenue falls short, the state must scramble. "Because of the state's tax structure, planners at every level are unable to forecast revenues from one year to the next," Thompson says. "There's nothing inherently wrong with volatility, as long as we plan for it."

If the Atkinson Graduate School of Management professor had his way, he would reinvent government, at least the fiscal end of it. "It seems me that borrowing is often hidden, as when states borrow from pensions to cover a recession. The other easy way states generate cash is by not maintaining infrastructure, which reduces life spans of buildings and roads. Instead of borrowing and spending at a steady rate, we spend like drunken sailors when there's an economic boom and cut taxes when there's not."

In addition to promoting realistic fiscal policies, Thompson has promoted the effective use of technology in government and business, co-writing the book, Digital State at the Leading Edge. "Information technology is driving all the advances in the American economy," Thompson says. "If we don't understand how to take advantage of it we will fall behind. Governments tend to want to buy turnkey solutions from consultants -- solutions that often don't work. When you don't know what you want or why, it's easy to run into an information technology fiasco."

Thompson also recently co-authored From Bureaucracy to Hyperarchy in Netcentric and Quick Learning Organizations: Exploring Future Public Management Practice, a book that explores the new organizational model. "Organizations and corporations are much more equalitarian in design than organizations from the previous century, which was fundamentally a time of bureaucracy and mass production," Thompson says. "Now we see more small companies with less vertical integration than there used to be. Businesses are more democratic in nature."

Thompson was founding editor of the International Public Management Journal, now based at Harvard University. The journal focuses on how people can reinvent government, initiate performance management, and establish accountability in budgets. He served for several years as senior economist on the staff of the Economic Council of Canada and between 1996 and 2006 advised several transitional states of Eastern Europe about financial management, serving on an especially effective United Nations Commission in the Republic of Macedonia. The recommendations were instituted and boosted Macedonia's economic growth in preparation for its entry into the European Union. "Per capita GNP growth is now growing at 6-7 percent annually," Thompson says. "Macedonia is one of a handful of states where U.S. diplomacy has done a first-rate job of promoting political stability and a stable transition to sustained growth, despite serious ethnic cleavages."

When he's not thinking about managing money, information technology or Atkinson classes, Thompson is hiking, camping or fishing in the Cascade Mountains, where he and his family own a rustic cabin.

Willamette University's Center for Governance and Public Policy Research supports the policymaking process in the Northwest with research and analysis. The center is founded on the principle that collaboration between the academic and policy-making communities can improve government. In addition to research, the center sponsors conferences, seminars and workshops.