I’ve been privileged this week to attend the finalist presentations for the Innovations in American Government, part of a team from Michigan representing the Public Spaces, Community Places program. It’s inspirational to meet and learn public sector leaders from around the country. These finalists are tackling tough issues, such as: drug addiction, voter participation, financing clean energy, early childhood education and partisan gerrymandering. See more information about every project at the Harvard Ash Center’s site.

While it’s a diverse set of topics and institutions, I heard some themes could be applied across any local government:

  • Act quickly while the circumstances are ripe – things can change quickly in democratic institutions. Staff from New York City used as their motivation, while working toward universal preschool for four-year olds, the statement “You’re only four once!”
  • Use existing resources creatively, such as people’s smartphones (the Wisconsin A-CHESS addiction prevention app) or public hearing videos & transcripts (like California’s Digital Democracy project)
  • Find ways to stretch public dollars, like Connecticut’s Green Bank…and our very own Public Spaces, Community Places program!

I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues, friends, family and neighbors about my upcoming visit to Boston. The curious ones ask, what’s your work event? When I tell them, proudly, the Harvard Innovations in American Government awards, the nearly inevitable response is some sort of wisecrack. “Innovation and government, that’s an oxymoron!” “How much bureaucracy is involved in the awards presentations?”

Hey, I like mocking government inefficiency as much as the next person. But the frequency of this response is emblematic of a deeper problem in America, which political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call “American Amnesia.” We have collectively forgotten the degree to which we owe our prosperity to proactive government investments in research & development, infrastructure and public health made in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Other scholars take the premise even further. Not only is government an important partner of prosperity, it is the primary driver of innovation. Building on the work of Mariana Mazzucato, Ben Tarnoff puts it this way in The Guardian: “…nearly every major innovation since the second world war has required a big push from the public sector, for an obvious reason: the public sector can afford to take risks that the private sector can’t. Conventional wisdom says that market forces foster innovation. In fact, it’s the government’s insulation from market forces that has historically made it such a successful innovator. It doesn’t have to compete, and it’s not at the mercy of investors demanding a share of its profits. It’s also far more generous with the fruits of its scientific labor: no private company would ever be so foolish as to constantly give away innovations it has generated at enormous expense for free, but this is exactly what the government does.”

So yes, there’s plenty of innovation in government, from the federal level down to the local. Check out the wonderful finalists for the aforementioned Harvard award if you don’t believe me. Or our “how-to” library on this site. Or the Alliance for Innovation. I could go on, but the point is: we need to support more of this innovation rather than waiting for the private sector.

 

iag_seal_largeYesterday, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, made an exciting announcement for those of us supporting crowdfunding and placemaking in Michigan: the Public Spaces, Community Places program is one of seven finalists nationwide for the Innovations in American Government Award. This is wonderful recognition for the core partners on the program, Patronicity, MEDC and the League, as well as others who have contributed to the program, including MSHDA and MParks.

A team from the Michigan partner organizations will be traveling to Harvard’s campus May 16 and 17 to make a final pitch to the award judges. Summer Minnick and I will be representing the League. Follow along on this blog and via Twitter (Luke and Summer) where we’ll share additional updates.

See Harvard’s release for more information on the award and all the programs they recognized.