FROM THE outermost suburbs to the downtown hub of this national capital area, the financial outlook is riddled with question marks: What can residents and businesses expect from their governments in response to tougher economic times? Fewer services? Higher taxes? Massive layoffs of public and private employees? Or maybe -- just maybe -- a therapeutic wringing out of the excess in government and private business as well. Though the signals may be all too sobering, the prospects for an intelligent local as well as regional response to common economic challenges happen to be far better here today than in years.

Not only are there new, talented people stepping from election victories into various high offices in the District and the neighboring suburbs, but there is also a much-improved opportunity to explore cooperative regional approaches that are both more efficient and more economical. Good things along these lines are starting to happen already, including a calling together of all the local and congressional leaders in the region for a special session to be hosted by Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.).

Look at some of the changes in leadership, starting with the election of Sharon Pratt Dixon as D.C. mayor and John Wilson as D.C. Council chairman -- two independent, intelligent thinkers who long ago spoke up about waste in the bureaucratic structure and who are now in positions to do something about it. Though they differ on several financial issues, they have acknowledged that the situation today requires that they work together. They are not without important help, either: the Rivlin Commission report on budget and financial priorities is a powerful inventory/blueprint for the city's leaders in 1991 and beyond.

In the Maryland suburbs, there will be new players in the county governments who, like their counterparts in the District, may not see eye-to-eye on all big issues but who at least claim to understand the necessity of ultimately finding ways to get along with each other. And in the Virginia suburbs, where some important local elections will take place next year, local leaders and possible challengers are likely to be checking the political weather on the hour for serious responses to tougher economic times.

In Congress, there certainly is cause for regional joy in the fact that Alexandria Mayor Jim Moran will replace Rep. Stan Parris, whose advocacy of regional cooperation came late, weak and without any great history of personal participation on his part. There is already an exceptionally good caucus of this area's legislators on Capitol Hill, which can only improve with the additional contributions of Mayor Moran.

There is no magic in merely assembling regional leaders for chitchat. As the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and Metro have demonstrated so well over the years, there are big projects that cross jurisdictional boundaries and that benefit from the economies of joint ventures -- from water and sewer treatment facilities to subways and now on to highways and other transportation improvements. It is a given that the health of any one local jurisdiction can affect that of every other in the region. That, coupled with the economic signals across this region, should be ample incentive for creative extensions of area-wide cooperation in 1991 and beyond.