Harvard’s Ash Center announces ‘Top 25 Innovations in Government’

This is a story about government, but not sequestration, gridlock or any of the activities widely looked upon as pain points or failures. In fact, this is a story about innovation in government at a time when people, including those on the inside, generally believe government is incapable of anything close to it.

Early morning traffic in Brooklyn moves slowly beneath the Manhattan skyline, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 in New York. Commuting is a headache for New Yorkers as many subways and tunnels are out of order following superstorm Sandy.  New York City moved closer to resuming its frenetic pace by getting back its vital subways Thursday, three days after a superstorm, but neighboring New Jersey was stunned by miles of coastal devastation and the news of thousands of people in one city still stranded by increasingly fetid flood waters. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Early morning traffic in Brooklyn moves slowly beneath the Manhattan skyline in November 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government announced its list of the “Top 25 Innovations in Government” Wednesday. The list spans federal, city, state, local and tribal governments. The winner and four finalists for the “Innovations in American Government Award” — created by the Ford Foundation in 1985 — will be chosen from the list and announced in the fall.

“This is an effort to recognize where government is doing well,” said Kara O’Sullivan, associate director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center.

The list, as presented in a release from the Ash Center, is divided into four categories: nominees with a culture of innovation, those geared around helping “troubled neighborhoods,” ones dedicated to environmental revitalization, and those dedicated to “the next generation workforce.”

“I think we’re seeing a fair amount of innovation inside an environment that is really very difficult, if not antagonistic to innovation,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the program.

Among the projects that made the cut is a public-private collaboration between NASA, USAID, the State Department and sportswear company Nike called Launch. The project, through a series of forums and networks, seeks to surface and accelerate the development of strong, innovative ideas. The General Services Administration (GSA), meanwhile, was recognized for Challenge.gov, an online crowdsourcing platform that offers prizes to anyone able to provide working solutions to tough problems facing Uncle Sam.

The Alternative Sentencing Social Worker Program in Kentucky was also listed. It brings social workers and public defenders together to craft and present in court alternatives to jail sentences in an effort to reduce imprisonment and recidivism rates. In New York City, the Office of Financial Empowerment works to provide affordable financial education and support to low-income residents, while the city’s Children First Network Expansion works to make sure that administrators and teachers are brought together to improve decision-making on behalf of students and schools. New York City, said Goldsmith, is a regular on the rankings list, as are Minneapolis, Seattle and King County, Washington.

“We’re dealing in a world where risk is inherent — where people are intentionally taking risks that may not be in their professional best interest in order to produce something better for the public,” Goldsmith said.

There’s the National Archives’ Citizen Archivist Initiative, which empowers people inside and outside of government to help bring the nation’s records — old and new — online. The State Department’s Consular Team India, a collaborative effort on the part of the U.S. Embassy in India and the four consulates across the country, was also recognized. Boise’s Department of Arts and History and the Mayor of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics also made the list. Alaska’s Native Science and Engineering Program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative were also listed alongside the Department of Health and Human Service’s efforts to coordinate the nation’s health information technology services.

“The big innovations most often occur collaboratively,” said Goldsmith. “People are relatively routine inside their agencies. It’s when they break out of their agencies, that we get to see things in a broader perspective.”

Pedestrians walk through a gate on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012. Dozens of Harvard University students are being investigated for cheating after school officials discovered evidence they may have wrongly shared answers or plagiarized on a final exam. Harvard officials on Thursday didn't release the class subject, the students' names, or specifically how many are being investigated. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Pedestrians walk through a gate on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in August 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

There is also a growing number of government entities intentionally structuring initiatives for the purpose of innovation, said Goldsmith, while social media and big data are generating noticeable changes.

But those changes may not be enough, at least not when it comes to the federal government. News of the Ash Center’s top 25 comes the day after the release of a report from the Partnership for Public Service that shows federal employees are less than pleased with the current state of innovation in departments and agencies. The report, based on analysis of the Partnership’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings, found that only 36 percent of federal employees said creativity and innovation were rewarded in their agencies. Federal employees’ responses reflected a workforce that felt insufficiently empowered and rewarded for providing high-quality services and products.

The Department of Transportation, which came in 16th of the 18 large federal agencies rated in the Partnership’s analysis, made the Ash Center’s top 25 list for its creation of IdeaHub. The online platform allows employees to field, rank and discuss ideas within the department. NASA, which federal employees found to be the most innovative agency, received a nomination for its collaboration on Launch. Meanwhile, the departments of Labor and Homeland Security, which came second to last and last respectively in the Partnership’s rankings, failed to make it into the Ash Center’s top 25 list.

“We’re seeing … innovations that are occurring almost despite the structures of government, not because of them,” said Goldsmith, “and our job is to focus on those who are innovating, and hopefully that will create pressure on the system to allow more of it.”

Here is the full list of the “Top 25 Innovations in Government”: 

Alternative Sentencing Social Worker Program
Commonwealth of Kentucky

Challenge.gov
General Services Administration

Office of Financial Empowerment
City of New York

Children First Network Expansion
New York City Public Schools

Citizen Archivist Initiative
National Archives and Records Administration

Consular Team India
Department of State

Department of Arts and History
City of Boise, Idaho

Healthy Incentives
King County, Wash.

Homebase
City of New York

IdeaHub
Department of Transportation

LAUNCH
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics
City of Boston

Metropolitan College
Louisville, Ky., Metro Government

National Coordination of Health IT
Department of Health and Human Services

Native Science and Engineering Program
State of Alaska

Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative
Department of Housing and Urban Development

Opportunity Probation with Enforcement
State of Hawaii

Re-Powering America’s Land Initiative
Environmental Protection Agency

Rocketship Education
Santa Clara County, Calif.

SFpark
City and County of San Francisco

Smart Roadside Inspection System
State of New Mexico

Smarter Sustainable Dubuque
City of Dubuque, Iowa

Sustainable Communities Initiative
Department of Housing and Urban Development

Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers
Westchester County, N.Y., Public Schools

Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council
Yukon River Tribes and Nations

The Washington Post’s Josh Hicks contributed to this report. Read more from Hicks on The Federal Eye.

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