Forums for Smarter Government

New collaborative initiatives are tapping a growing willingness for Washington and the states to work together to find innovative ways to deliver services.
by , | November 1, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

There is plenty of news these days about the tensions between the federal government and the states. But did you know that the federal government is sponsoring innovation pilots with states to uncover smarter ways of delivering services to citizens? Several related Obama-administration initiatives, including the Partnership Fund for Program Integrity Innovation, have resulted in an innovation development and testing process encompassing state and federal agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations, known as the Collaborative Forum.

These initiatives have been bolstered in recent months by a presidential memo and a related presidential executive order. Why now? State budget cuts, the work of the congressional deficit-cutting "supercommittee" and the White House's "Campaign to Cut Government Waste" have created a new sense of urgency, which in turn is creating a willingness to work together toward common goals.

Congress authorized the Partnership Fund in 2009 and appropriated $32.5 million to support pilot projects over a three-year period.

The Office of Management and Budget has identified several initial areas for pilots, including improving payment accuracy in federally funded, state-administered programs; improving administrative efficiency in state-run programs; and reducing access barriers for eligible beneficiaries of various programs.

The fund so far has identified and is supporting six pilots and is seeking more. To select pilots, it created a four-step collaborative process:

• Submission of a pilot "idea" by federal agencies, states or other stakeholders.

• Refinement of the idea into a pilot "concept."

• Review by a federal steering committee review and approval by OMB.

• Transfer of funds to a lead federal agency, which then uses a merit-based process to select specific pilot projects.

The other recent initiative, the Collaborative Forum, is an independent, state-led entity that includes nearly 400 participants from all 50 states, more than 10 federal agencies and more than 65 other stakeholders, including the National Association of State Chief Information Officers; the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers; the American Public Human Services Association; and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The forum was created by OMB to help identify state-level best practices and potential innovative pilot projects.

One such best practice is the use of electronic benefit transfer cards—similar to a debit card—to distribute benefits such as food stamps. This dramatically reduces program fraud while improving customer service by giving benefit recipients ready access to their funds. One of the potential pilot projects being developed would use a similar approach to reduce widespread fraud in other programs, such as payments of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The forum's on-line community began in early 2011 with four working groups to guide the development of pilot projects aimed at improving payment accuracy without diminishing access to benefits by eligible participants. These working groups cover areas such as shared systems, auditing, eligibility and service-delivery mechanisms, and the use of data-sharing and data-matching.

The latest work group, which focuses on integration and interoperability in health and human service programs, was formed mid-year in response to ideas originating in forum discussions.

These initiatives not only bring together networks of experts but also serve to originate and continue a dialogue on ways to innovate across programs and jurisdictions to serve citizens with better outcomes. It's an effort that holds a lot of promise—and one that most public officials and government managers would agree is long overdue.