Government officials spent a large chunk of 2011 talking about problems and had a difficult time coming up with concrete solutions -- ones that all involved parties agreed on anyways. Despite the gridlocked atmosphere that's consumed Washington, many statehouses and even small-town council meetings this year, there were governments willing to take a risk on a creative solution to a widespread problem. The following is a list of what we consider our favorite ideas from Governing's twice-weekly Idea Center column in 2011:
IMPROVING ACCESS TO AND QUALITY OF EDUCATION
Although Congress grabbled with overhauling the No Child Left Behind law and states stressed over controversial issues like teacher evaluations, state and local education officials came up with a few truly creative ideas to get more kids to read and go to college.
Instead of waiting for students to go to the library, Nashville Public Library started allowing kids to order books online this year and have them delivered to their classroom. The new service has increased the library's circulation so much that its employees are having trouble keeping up with the demand. Moral of the story: If you want kids to read, make it easy for them.
Since the recession hit, college students have seen their tuition go up and their opportunities for financial aid go down. To help families who have exhausted all of their resources and still can't afford the high price of a degree, Georgia and several other states started offering small low-interest loans -- just 1 percent in the Peach State! Because of stricter requirements and increased outreach and education, these state-funded loans have significantly lower default rates than federal ones.
FEEDING, HOUSING AND EMPLOYING THE NEEDY
This year saw record numbers of people out of work and more people taking advantage of welfare programs than ever before. But it also spawned government programs to make sure 2012 is different.
Thanks to a recent change in federal law, schools can finally donate their leftover (and untouched) food from school cafeterias to food banks, which have struggled to fill their shelves and feed every mouth in recent years. It was a small change buried in a big agriculture spending bill, but it has the potential to make a big difference.
Just like kids who will read more if you bring the books to them, adults will likely seek more job-search assistance if you bring it to them. In Tennessee, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development drove three buses with satellite Internet to rural areas where slow or nonexistent Internet connections make it harder for citizens to find and apply to jobs. The buses are staffed with up to five employees tasked with helping residents file unemployment claims, earn their GED, craft resumes, look for jobs and nail interviews.
This Washington, D.C., pilot program, which offers a living wage and rent-controlled housing to homeless people in exchange for their help refurbishing vacant city-owned buildings, could be a model for weaning people off welfare, reducing the homeless population and improving the look of cities.
TAKING ADVANTAGE OF TEXTING
Many states have outlawed texting while driving, but a few also used texting to their advantage in 2011.
Certain situations make calling 911 dangerous or impossible. This year, Durham County, N.C., became only the second municipality to start experimenting with text-to-911 technology.
If you've ever wished for the ability to text a question to the government, Arkansas has made your mobile dreams come true. Last year's runner-up for best state government website is now the first state to use Text4help, a function that operates like a customer service phone bank where representatives respond to citizen questions via text.
SAVING THE PLANET
States and localities have taken creative action toward maintaining the water supply and embracing solar energy across its jurisdiction.
The drought that dried out Texas this year was the worst in recorded history. It was just recently reported that it may have killed 10 percent of the state's trees -- that's 500 million. Faced with desperate times, three Texas cities began recycling treated wastewater to reuse as drinking water. If people can get over the shock of where their tap water originated, this may help the many municipalities that are predicted to face water shortages in years to come.
The interest in solar panels among home and building owners has noticeably increased in recent years, but uncertainty about costs, savings and the installation process have kept many from following through. Hoping to demystify the benefits of solar power, New York City launched a map that calculates the solar potential and annual savings of each of its more than 1 million buildings.
INCREASING PUBLIC TRANSIT'S SPEED, REDUCING HEALTH-CARE COSTS, AND EDUCATING GOVERNMENT LEADERS
The following three programs may not fit in a neat category, but merit a glance for their unique approach to moving traffic, and creating healthier and more knowledgable employees.
Anyone who consistently rides public transportation will like Illinois' decision to allow some public buses to drive in the shoulder lanes when traffic is inching along at less than 35 mph during rush hours. Officials hope the program will improve public transit's reliability and encourage its use.
Insurance plans that give people financial incentives to stay or get healthy aren't new, but the public sector is just starting to jump on board. And in Nebraska, which was the first state to offer such a plan to its government workers in 2009, the positive results are starting to show. Last year, state employees reportedly ate healthier, smoked less, exercised more and experienced less stress and depression.
Trying to change its corruption-plagued reputation, South Florida sent its newest local officials to boot camp this fall to get lessons in everything they need to know about effectively serving their communities. From balancing a mock municipal budget to avoiding ethics scandals to understanding land-use regulations, the "Good Government Initiative" curriculum is the first wide-ranging effort aimed at helping local leaders network and govern ethically.
For more good government ideas in 2012, Idea Center will start again on Jan. 2 on Governing.com.