When Connection is the Innovation in Human Services

A journal launched by two Philadelphia social services entrepreneurs is going a long way toward spreading the word about what works and what doesn't.
November 13, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

Six years ago in a column here, I speculated that waves of incoming new public employees would reshape the public workplace and the delivery of services. These new tech-savvy workers come with an expectation of connectivity. They are impatient with the hierarchical lines of authority that characterize much of public-sector service delivery and with the isolation of service agencies by funding streams.

Unbeknownst to me, at that moment two social entrepreneurs, both with careers in Philadelphia but who had only met as Eisenhower Fellows, were wondering why so little of the innovation in the human-services field in their hometown was being shared with others and why the social innovators seemed not to know each other. They saw in the continuing connection of Eisenhower fellows worldwide a model that could benefit social innovation in Philadelphia and beyond.

Like many places, Philadelphia's public and nonprofit agencies were often resistant to change and skeptical that innovation could be brought to meaningful scale. Innovation and competition were often quietly smothered if they threatened the status quo -- "the usual suspects talking the innovation talk but being careful to not let much of it actually happen," as one long-time nonprofit veteran observed. In too many respects, Philadelphia was a city with a thousand rooms but few connecting doors.

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Nick Torres and Tine Hanson-Turton believed that one of the solutions to this malaise was to showcase innovations on the home turf, celebrate them among a larger audience and build partnerships that could begin to inject an appreciation and appetite for innovation "into the air." With work and time, they thought, it could energize and link a new generation of social entrepreneurs and support the efforts of like-minded innovators already working within the public sector.

Their strategy was the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal (PSIJ), launched in the fall of 2009 with an edition containing 22 feature articles, editorials and reports on what works and what doesn't. An open invitation to share, contribute and spread the word resonated immediately. Operating on a shoestring, each quarter PSIJ offers independent reviews and contributed articles showcasing innovation in the social-services sector.

Four years on, PSIJ has 15 investors and funders, including many of the region's foundations and the United Way, as well as related national entities including the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the nonprofit consultancy Bridgespan and the White House Office of Social Innovation. New editions of PSIJ attract growing numbers of participants, many of whom come to meet others in related but separate fields within social services.

This fall's edition broadens PSIJ's perspective by setting the Philadelphia region in a national context in collaboration with innovation researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Together the two partners see a strong opportunity to leverage private nonprofit innovation into widespread scaled application in public agencies.

Long-time social-services practitioners in Philadelphia have welcomed PSIJ's growing momentum. As one who has served in public, nonprofit and for-profit organizations remarked, the publication "has elevated the conversation in Philadelphia and fostered cross-sector collaboration as a convener. Meetings have become places where people feel they need to be if they want to understand cross-overs among government and independent agencies."

The connectivity that characterizes the participation in PSIJ appears to be having multiple payoffs. It has encouraged the social-services community to look beyond its own boundaries for promising approaches to common issues. And in a risk-averse, slow-to-change public sector, it has offered support to those who are trying to innovate and made more permeable the wall between the nonprofit world and government. In short, it's going a long way toward meeting the high expectations of that increasingly young and tech-savvy public workforce.