From the ongoing scandal at the Veterans Administration that has forced thousands of America’s heroes to wait months for vital medical care, to continued billing problems at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power that have left one Van Nuys couple with a $51,649.32 water bill, government at all levels appears to be doing its best to confirm the late Admiral Hyman Rickover’s quip, “If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the government. God will forgive you, but the bureaucracy won’t.”
But in my work with local government leaders throughout California to improve both public engagement practices and transparency, I’ve witnessed countless acts of innovative public service, where leaders strive to make their agencies more responsive to citizens, while respecting taxpayers by delivering services efficiently.
Serving recently as one of five judges for the 2015 Innovations in American Government Awards, sponsored by Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, I was excited to see incredible examples of public leadership addressing extremely complex problems.
The nine finalists vie for two $100,000 prizes, and finalists receive a $10,000 award. Submissions ranged from a charter school program in San Francisco County jails that is reducing recidivism by more than a third to an innovative program in New York led by the Medicaid Response Team that is cutting 30 percent of the state’s Medicaid budget, without a loss in patient health outcome. While the projects vary in subject and geography, a quick review of the nine finalists reveals several common pillars for rebuilding the bridge of trust between the public sector and citizens.
• Collaboration: To varying degrees, each of the finalists involved different government agencies working with the public to address a thorny problem.
San Francisco’s “Kindergarten to College” program offers a special savings account along with a $50 “seed deposit” for every kindergartener entering the city’s public school system.
The program is premised on research showing that children from families with $500 saved toward a college education have a four times greater chance of going than those from families that haven’t. The two-year-old effort involves an encouraging public-private collaboration between the city’s treasurer’s office, San Francisco Unified School District, parents and Citibank, which created a customized savings account – a service they provide at no cost.
In another application, when Massachusetts learned that its wastewater treatment plants were spending $150 million per year on energy to treat 662 billion gallons of wastewater/drinking water, a committee convened by the University of Massachusetts, comprised of the EPA, state Department of Environmental Protection and local WWTP managers led a series of workshops throughout the state soliciting ideas for conserving energy at each of the state’s 24 plants.
The results over the last five years have been awesome: an average reduction of over one-third in both energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions across each of the measured facilities.
• Focused on results – especially financial ones: Another common theme was that innovative government is cost-effective government.
In some cases, programs more than pay for themselves. New York City’s Vacant Land Remediation Agency took an aggressive approach to making the city’s 8,000 brownfield lots developable. Becoming the first city-led brownfield clean-up agency in the United States, the Vacant Land Community Revitalization Initiative operates on an annual budget of $1.3 million dollars, and easily makes that back on cleanup fees.
But more than that, it’s remediated over 400 lots in the last two years, putting $125 million of developable land back on the market, with long-term New York City property tax revenues from these properties estimated at $1 billion.
Daniel C. Walsh, the director of Gotham’s Vacant Land Cleanup and Revitalization program said, “when we began to see how quickly developers were coming in to our remediated properties, we knew were becoming as much an economic development agency as an environmental one.” He stepped up to this new task.
Another finalist came from the state of New York, which has one of the most expensive Medicaid programs in the country.
Its Medicaid Response Team was convened in 2011 with 25 appointed members. Over the first six months, the team led a series of public workshops around the Empire State, gathering 4,000 ideas to improve the program’s effectiveness. These ideas helped to outline 10 working groups focused on particular areas to reform the complex health care bureaucracy. In four years, the state estimates it has found over $30 billion in savings without sacrificing health outcomes.
• Culture-changing leadership: A very intriguing common ingredient across many finalists was leadership capable of envisioning and communicating a new identity and changing the culture of a bureaucracy.
Most jails see themselves as short-term incarceration facilities. But in 2003, San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey, working with local residents of one of their jails, had a different vision, and the Five Keys Charter School was created inside the jail’s walls. Today, the school’s programs are offered in 23 county jails, and recidivism for those participating is 44 percent – one-third less than the statewide average of 70 percent.
And observer called Walsh and his staff, “a small band of revolutionaries.”
There are 25,000 government bodies in the United States – including several thousand in California alone – and these are only a handful of innovation finalists. But with increasing strains on local and state governments from unfunded fiscal obligations and environmental regulations, innovative public leaders are more important than ever.
In this, we can move from Rickover’s definition of a bureaucracy to what Alexis de Tocqueville said of Americans over a century ago: “The American taken randomly will therefore be a man ardent in his desires, enterprising, adventurous – above all, an innovator.”
This piece originally posted to The Orange County Register.