Political Space for Innovation

Government should help social entrepreneurs find creative solutions. The best way to do that is to remove barriers.
July 14, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

Two weeks ago in the East Wing of the White House, President Obama raised an important point which all public managers and elected officials should consider: Through targeted funding, can government spark innovation in how we as a nation address our most pressing social problems? The president announced the creation of a social innovation fund to be administered by a White House office of the same name. Mayors, governors and their cabinet officials would do well to consider this same structure, although success is far from guaranteed.

Despite all of our investments and good intentions to date, civic progress has been slow for many Americans. These are particularly tough times with home foreclosures up, neighborhoods destabilized, high school graduation rates at dire levels and economic mobility stagnant. Yet we continue to see impressive results from nonprofit entrepreneurs, also frequently called social entrepreneurs, because their programs focus on transformative results and operate across traditional programmatic lines.

It's encouraging to see there are innovative leaders changing the way we address social problems as a nation, as communities and as neighbors. These social entrepreneurs see opportunity, potential and hope where others might see struggle and setback. They lead across the divides that separate us -- whether cultural, institutional or otherwise. Through their example, they inspire us as citizens to expect more from ourselves and to demand change when incumbent systems and programs aren't working. We recognize some of the names -- Teach for America, CityYear, New Leaders for New Schools -- but other successful programs still struggle to go to scale.

In studying civic innovators from both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, I've observed many who took their proven results to a new city or state only to encounter a process closed to innovation. Prior to the president's announcement in the East Wing, I was pleased at the opportunity to highlight many of these innovators and their respective programs, but they require more than mere recognition. The fund the president has established will help these social entrepreneurs push through barriers to innovation.

Creating a culture where innovation and impact are the norm, not the exception, must at times be led from the top. As public managers our charge is to alter the trajectory of individual lives and communities by transforming how we address entrenched social problems. Just as private-sector entrepreneurs are the driving force behind our economy, so too are civic innovation and demand for change the driving forces behind social progress. To this end, the president called specifically for funds to promote innovation in education, community renewal and social services.

Most governments fund the same activities year after year. They are especially reluctant to insist on performance or provide seed funding for disruptive innovation when non profits are involved as partners or vendors. Government often inhibits the process, in many city councils for example, through legislative earmarks for social services, or by raising barriers to entry by prescribing stricter credentials and codes.

From our years studying faith-based and community initiatives at the local, state and federal levels, we also learned that significant administrative, cultural and even legal barriers often prevent local entrepreneurial efforts (whether faith-based or not) from tapping into the billions of tax dollars spent on human services. Leaders can often pave the way for social entrepreneurs by removing these barriers, by helping newer or smaller providers connect to existing funding streams, and by mandating that the cabinet agencies responsible for service delivery consider these organizations as partners.

State and local officials must also strike a balance between accountability and flexibility. They should grant not just dollars, but also the authority to take risks and experiment. It may take a dozen new ideas, after all, to find the one innovation that works. Efforts such as Indianapolis' Mind Trust and New York City's Center for Economic Opportunity are, in effect, local innovation funds that create the financial space for experimentation. Because they were created with the backing of entrepreneurial mayors, they also offer the political space for innovation. As we all know, citizens and the press can often be unforgiving when governments fail, but avoiding failure at the expense of innovation will yield no new solutions at all.

Invested leadership, emerging social-networking technology, and a renewed service ethic make this a truly exciting time for social innovation. But active government partnership remains essential, whether this means disrupting the existing delivery system or making it better. At its best, government facilitates, funds, and creates a friendly environment for community solutions.