How the Government Can Do Good With Less

By Reena Jana

With a new Presidential Administration in place, there’s been much talk lately about how to improve government-run services. How can elected officials save money and create jobs and businesses? This year’s 16 finalists for the Innovations in American Government Awards, given each year since 1986 by the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance & Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, illustrate ways that cities, counties, states, and even federal agencies are reinventing services.

Each is a potential case study for feasible national-level programs. And each reflects fresh thinking that led to measurable results, many in areas that could benefit from President Barack Obama’s economic plan, such as education, health-care, and home-ownership initiatives. The program’s winners have a good track record in terms of aligning with the Obama camp’s goals: Representatives of two of last year’s winning entries now have Cabinet-level posts — Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the Housing & Development Dept., and Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Agriculture Dept.

“Some define innovation in general as something that is better, faster, and cheaper, but it’s a much more complicated process to transfer innovation in the government,” says Awards Director Stephen Goldsmith of the particular challenges of invention within the public sphere.

“In the private sector, if a company has a good idea, they wait for marketplace adoption. In [the public sector], there is no marketplace to drive scalability. You have to depend on a leader adopting and making it happen,” he continues. “We’re trying to create a marketplace for innovation to use power of idea to create change.” The annual competition drives this marketplace-like arena for winners.

Maximizing the Impact “It isn’t like innovation doesn’t happen in the public sector all the time. But without any mechanism to transfer knowledge, small successes stay small,” observes Scott Anthony, author of The Silver Lining: An Innovation Playbook for Uncertain Times. “These kinds of contests can really maximize the impact of a good idea.”

On May 27, representatives of each finalist program gathered at Harvard and presented their case studies of efficiency and effectiveness to a national selection committee. Several winners will be chosen and announced this fall for awards as high as $100,000 to allot toward continuing or expanding the programs. [The final number of awards hasn’t been set yet.] The jury is made up of policy experts, from Maria Echaveste, former adviser to President Bill Clinton, to David Osborne, author of The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in the Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis.

Some of this year’s finalists count new software as their innovations, like the Democratization of Government Data project in Washington. This initiative provides a central archive of various agencies’ information and encourages developers of smartphone apps to invent tools for, say, police officers so they can analyze data quickly. Think of it as the iTunes App Store for government workers.

Others are more low-tech. The City of Louisville, for instance, has created one-stop centers where residents can access health-care, employment, and educational organizations in one trip. It’s more like a mall for solving urgent medical and job-related problems.

Examples of Thrift Many of the finalist programs have saved time and money for their communities — welcome examples of thrift in a deep recession. The Lawrence [Mass.] Auto Insurance Fraud Task Force, for instance, has lowered Lawrence citizens’ annual insurance premiums by $15.5 million by coordinating efforts between the police departments and private insurance companies.

Others are focused on teaching individuals or institutions how to manage their budgets better, such as New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity, managed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office. That program teaches lower-income people financial skills.

“Bloomberg’s CEO program is like an innovation lab for government services, and it’s a model the White House is currently looking at,” says the Ash Institute’s Goldsmith, pointing to the New York initiative as an example of how timely the finalist programs are. It’s even more evidence that the awards program has caught Obama’s eye as an “innovation lab” in its own right.