Innovation in government: Not an oxymoron

By: Sandford BorinsCynics believe that government is never innovative. They're wrong. There is abundant evidence of public servants finding new and more effective ways to serve citizens. You only need look for it.Twenty years ago, the Ford Foundation was concerned that this cynicism had infected the American political system, starting right at the top with then President Reagan. So the Foundation developed a program to look for and reward the best innovations in state and local government.Ford gave a grant to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to run an awards program and support research on innovations in government. Over the last 20 years the program has thrived and grown to encompass the U.S. federal government and to become the hub of a global network of government innovators and innovation awardsThe Kennedy School has supported my own research on innovation in government and, to commemorate the coming of age of its awards program, asked me to produce a new book.We decided to bring together a group of top international scholars and our collective effort – a book entitled Innovations in Government: Research, Recognition, and Replication – has just been published by the Brookings Institution.The book addresses a variety of leading edge questions:- How can a large government bureaucracy become more innovative? Professor John Donahue, of the Kennedy School, reports on the experience of the U.S. Department of Labor from 1993-97 under then Secretary Robert Reich.- How do innovations in developing countries differ from those in advanced countries? Professors Marta Farah and Peter Spink of the Fundacao Getulio Vargas in Brazil explain.- While the awards initially went to innovations that had their impact within an agency's four walls, there are an increasing number that involve co-production by citizens and/or citizen participation in decision-making. Professor Archon Fung of the Kennedy School examines this new wave.- What challenges must be overcome to keep an innovative program in operation? Professor Eugene Bardach of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley looks at the experience of a sample of long-surviving innovations.- How are innovations replicated? Professor Bob Behn of the Kennedy School argues for the importance of communicating tacit knowledge and Professor Jean Hartley of the Warwick Business School looks at the experience of an awards program for English local government that emphasizes replication.- Finally, journalist Jonathan Walters of Governing magazine recounts the history of the Kennedy School's innovation awards and Professor Steve Kelman analyzes and critiques the “school” of research on innovation that the Kennedy School has fostered.The answers may surprise you.

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