Innovation Amidst Crisis

Contrary to stereotypes, governments innovate. Public officials, and the non-profit and for-profit partners they work with, are continuously developing creative approaches to solving difficult challenges....
by | July 20, 2009

Contrary to stereotypes, governments innovate. Public officials, and the non-profit and for-profit partners they work with, are continuously developing creative approaches to solving difficult challenges.

But there is a problem. Too often, the best innovations don't spread. The marketplace for sharing new ideas, products and services through government simply doesn't work as well as it could.

Today, the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard Kennedy School and Governing are launching a Web site and this monthly e-mail newsletter with one simple goal: to create a marketplace for ideas that will spread the adoption of creative public-sector solutions. The Better, Faster, Cheaper site and this Efficiency newsletter aspire to be the first places public officials will look to learn about innovations.

As mayor of Indianapolis, I took pride in being creative in my efforts to serve citizens and taxpayers. In practice, that meant that I made a concentrated effort to steal good ideas from everywhere -- the private sector, other cities, even overseas. Over time, we got pretty good at the process of borrowing breakthroughs from others, tweaking them for local conditions and then deploying them to help solve community problems.

Finding innovative practices wasn't always easy, however. In the crunch to deal with the "crisis du jour," it was hard to find the time to identify best practices and cutting-edge technologies.

The new Web site and newsletter launching today are intended to make the search for innovations easier. Harvard Kennedy School's Innovations in American Government Program annually reviews thousands of public-sector new approaches and recognizes the best with awards, while daily tracking stories of good ideas being put into practice. We are delighted to have Governing, the leading chronicler of state and local government management, as our partner for this newsletter.

In addition, we have gathered an impressive lineup of thought leaders from the world of public-sector management and efficiency, experts in the fields of social welfare, the environment, transportation and more. A variety of tools, from outsourcing to technology and social networking, will be reviewed, their application explored in areas ranging from crime control to street sweeping.

Most importantly, we encourage those excited about efficiency breakthroughs to share their ideas and accomplishments via blog posts on the the Better, Faster, Cheaper site. Our goal is to create a community of practice, a place where public officials, academics, vendors and private citizens can share what works and what doesn't.

Public officials caught in the current economic tempest view their choices bleakly. They often see their choices as limited to deciding whether to raise taxes or cut services. This is a false choice. It misses a wide array of other breakthrough innovations that can be accomplished without cutting public services or laying off public employees.

Innovative practices are crucial to stressed state and local governments trying to do more with less. A culture for efficiency must be pervasive. That's why we'll be searching for ideas, whether they produce hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings, hundreds of millions in savings -- or just produce better service for the same price.

A few of us who took over as big-city mayors in the 1990s found a set of almost equally ugly conditions, with the flight of people and tax base and concentration of poverty suggesting to some a sense of hopelessness. That period led to dramatic breakthroughs by groundbreaking mayors such as Ed Rendell in Philadelphia, Rudy Guiliani in New York and John Norquist in Milwaukee. Leaders of both parties were able to achieve a number of "politically impossible" reforms, from competitive contracting for services to privatization of infrastructure such as airports and wastewater treatment facilities. The result was often faster, better, cheaper government.

Today, federal money is diluting the imperative to innovate. This is a dangerous course of inaction, for when the federal dollars evaporate, the underlying problems will only be worse. A vigorous commitment to better, faster, cheaper government could reduce the operating costs of almost any public agency by 10 to 20 percent. Together, we can generate billions of dollars of value to public systems.

Stephen Goldsmith is the director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. You can email him at stephen_goldsmith@harvard.edu.

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