Health & Human Services

Disruptive Innovators

To take on the status quo in social services and education, people must be behind the innovative steps outlined in a new book.
by | May 11, 2010

Disruptive innovation" has a nice ring to it, and it's essentially what Stephen Goldsmith's new book, The Power of Social Innovation is about. The book tries to extract a wide variety of lessons about innovation and innovators by looking at a broad swath of disrupters who've taken on the social services and educational status quo from coast to coast.

For those who don't know him, Goldsmith is the former mayor of Indianapolis, where he made a name for himself implementing a system of competitive contracting that opened city work up to bid by both city employees and private contractors. He then moved to academia, to teach at the Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he also helped oversee the Innovations in American Government program. He just recently accepted a job with New York City, as deputy mayor for operations.

The upside of The Power of Social Innovation is that it details all the ways personalities, relationships, politics, finances, media and strategies came together to create new ways of tackling long-term and serious problems. The downside of the book is that not every one of its 223 pages is exactly hypnotizing or attention grabbing, and some of the examples that Goldsmith cites for success either haven't worked out all that well (although Goldsmith, himself, preaches that governments should get better at accepting the fact that with risk comes failure), or haven't played out sufficiently to judge whether change really was for the better. Still, the book makes points worth highlighting.

The value of re-framing mission. Goldsmith talks about "catalytic" mechanisms of change. That is, some ingredient that can be tossed into an existing system that will shake things up. For example, in the homelessness world, programs with the most potential don't have a mission to find homeless people permanent housing and jobs, rather their mission is to try to prevent homelessness in the first place. Obviously an effective homeless services system will always have to include some combination of those two, but the power of prevention is continually underestimated by our elected officials and bureaucrats, alike.

Busting the "iron triangle." One of the most powerful points Goldsmith makes is how hard it is to break the relationships between politicians, bureaucrats and existing service providers in order to allow fresh new players into the system. The basic problem is that government and bureaucracies still aren't very good at sifting through strong performers versus weak ones (or helping weak ones get better), and aren't very interested in taking a risk on new providers with new ideas. Meanwhile, long-time players -- whether unions or established providers -- are supremely adept at hanging on and blocking out.

The scourge of experts. One reinforcing element of the "iron triangle" is that in many cases, certain areas of human services have been taken over by credentialing and standards-setting entities that have set up iron-clad requirements and standards for how certain services will be delivered and by who. "Program, legislative, and regulatory professionals can inadvertently limit civic entrepreneurship by asserting technical definition of 'the right approach,'" writes Goldsmith, which creates an environment where "credentials or prescribed approaches" matter more than results. It's a phenomenon that Pastor Nathaniel Urshan, of the Calvary Tabernacle Church in Indianapolis, used to describe as "the curse of professionalism," writes Goldsmith.

The importance of including community and clients. The corollary to "the scourge of experts," Goldsmith points out, is something that really ought to be a matter of industry faith by now: We need to be including community and clients in discussions about what it is they need, rather than merely handing them the menu (which is all part and parcel of the continuing shift to a more "strengths-based" approach to human services).

The power of partnerships. In way too many instances, providers still operate in a competitive environment, looking to score contracts at the expense of other providers. This hasn't been a promising formula for long-range progress. But getting a wide variety of the right actors to start working together to tackle things like joblessness and unacceptably high student dropout rates has.

The power of performance measures. Fortunately, this isn't a maxim that really has to be argued much anymore in the social services world, although getting systems to adopt results-based thinking continues to be a challenge. In that regard, Goldsmith's basic advice, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" is right on. The perfect measure or measures will never exist. The point is, get as close as you can and start tracking.

Busting silos. This one is an oldy but moldy, too, but bears repeating. Services still operate in way too isolated a fashion. Again, it's not something that really has to be argued any longer -- no credible person actually still believes that health, education, legal and social services all ought to all be running along separate tracks, never connecting up. Connecting them, on the other hand, remains a challenge; we're an organizationally territorial species.

A new way of investing. In the book, Goldsmith introduces a variety of actors who have taken a whole new approach to providing funding, either through cash to help clients, or cash to those service providers who come in with fresh ideas for addressing social problems. This is in happy contrast to the old-fashioned foundation standard: Throw money at a place for three years and then move on to the next new thing.

New media, new influence. We're not going to tweet our way to social health, but Goldsmith does offer a host of examples where the Internet -- in all its glorious machinations -- has been used to quickly and broadly communicate, while making key connections in ways that have led to significant progress on a human services front.

Have faith. Government still doesn't use faith-based institutions to the full extent that they should, Goldsmith argues. While this is an understandable bias given politics as it's practiced these days, Goldsmith does make a solid case that there are some very energetic and creative churches out there doing very good, smart work, and governments should inventory that work and sign the appropriate churches up.

These are all important points to continue emphasizing, and again, there's real value in the job that Goldsmith has done in pulling them all together in the book. But the implicit (and in some places, explicit) point that Goldsmith makes throughout the book -- and the one that probably matters the most -- is that at the end of the day this is about people; restless, energetic, smart people who are behind all the change and progress outlined in The Power of Social Innovation.

Systems matter, rules matter, culture and mores matter and history matters. That's all true. But what really matters is that there are lots of wonderful people out there who aren't interested in going with the ineffective flow. They are the "disruptive innovators," and they deserve support and recognition.

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