Today an esteemed group of judges is meeting at the Harvard Kennedy School to select a winner from six finalists, winnowed down from hundreds of competitors, for the next Innovations in American Government Award. The winning program, which will receive a $100,000 grant, will be announced next year, but there is plenty of reason to draw lessons from these efforts right now.
That there are effective government initiatives at all might surprise many in our era of continuing high unemployment and stressed budgets compounded by media and advocacy groups that rail against government.
Yet a functioning democracy depends on a civil society that is confident its public officials can deliver services effectively and efficiently. The Innovations Awards program was originally designed for just that purpose: to recognize and promote excellence and creativity in the public sector. The program provides concrete evidence that government can work to improve the quality of life for citizens and that it deserves greater public trust.
Encouragingly for those of us who have labored in local government, a recent Gallup poll shows that the public, by a wide margin, still retains confidence in us to handle their problems, and a smaller majority feels the same way about state government -- numbers that show the resilience of beleaguered officials in meeting basic demands.
Maintaining this level of trust is a special challenge in difficult times, one that requires strong leadership and the support of outside stakeholders. By enhancing the public profile of creative government initiatives, programs like the Harvard awards give the most effective efforts impact beyond their own jurisdictions. The winners share their best practices to help replicate their approaches, and many of the winning programs are the forerunners for wider policy and legislative initiatives.
In their own distinctive ways, the Innovations Award finalists demonstrate that there is no shortage of creativity in government:
• Littleton, Colorado's Economic Gardening takes a nontraditional approach to economic development, focusing its energy on assisting businesses of 10 to 100 employees with sophisticated services such as trade-area analysis (industry trends, competitor intelligence and market segmentation), customer characteristics (demographic, lifestyle and consumer-expenditure data), and cyberspace tools (search-engine optimization, social-media marketing techniques, and network analysis). Instead of chasing large, out-of-town business with aggressive incentives, Economic Gardening nurtures local players. It now serves more than 400 local businesses a year.
• NYC Service is the outgrowth of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's promise to incorporate service into the very fabric of the city and its government. Not only is NYC Service a civic tool to aid residents in need especially in this challenging economic climate, but it also serves as a more formal civil-advocacy platform for volunteering. Diahann Billings-Burford, brought in to run the effort, became the nation's first chief service officer. The program is spreading rapidly to scores of other cities.
• Another New York City program, the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO), approaches the problems of poverty in a city challenged by a low-wage labor force in need of more mobility and skills. CEO works with city agencies to design and implement evidence-based initiatives and provides financial support through its own public-private "innovation fund."
• Healthy San Francisco addresses the problem of large numbers of uninsured San Francisco residents without access to health care. These individuals include unemployed, homeless, undocumented and other disadvantaged groups. The program capitalizes on existing public and private health care providers and organizes them into a single, coordinated system of care to connect uninsured adults to a comprehensive array of services. The program began in 2007 and now covers 54,000 uninsured adults.
• Oregon's much heralded Statewide Land Use Program aims at reducing urban sprawl by setting up growth boundaries. Specific concerns included overdevelopment of the Oregon coast, pollution of the Willamette River and the loss of prime farmland in the Willamette Valley, whose population doubled over 30 years. The program has survived a series of legal battles over the years and today the boundaries, although still controversial, limit sprawl and promote measured growth.
• The central problem that Boston Teacher Residency (BTR) addressed was teacher retention. In 2003, when the program started, 53 percent of the school district's new teachers were leaving within three years, costing $3 million annually in teacher-replacement costs. At the same time, the Boston public schools were having serious difficulties hiring teachers in high-need areas, such as math, science, English as a second language and special education. BTR explicitly models itself on the medical profession, in which doctors train as "residents," and law schools, where actual legal work is part of the curriculum itself. The program graduates roughly 70 new teachers annually, providing a third of the 200 teachers that Boston's schools hire in a typical year.
These programs and others show that a good idea and determination to succeed on the part of public officials can produce much more public value than simply increasing funding for stressed and often ineffective existing efforts. And these successes can go a long way in giving the public the confidence in their institutions that is necessary for democratic government to function efficiently and creatively.