Solutions That Can Change Society Innovations in State and Local Government Awards Recognize and Reward Creative Approaches to Problems

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WHEN the Ford Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government joined forces eight years ago to start an awards program for creative thinking by public employees, the goal was to "reposition" government. At the time, most politicians were "running against Washington," says Meryl Libbey, the program's associate director at the Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass. Government was typically portrayed as the cause of problems.

The idea, says Michael Lipsky, who's in charge of the program at the Ford Foundation, was "to try to bring some life to the proposition that government - particularly state and local government - could be part of the solution to severe social problems."

Each year since 1986, the Innovations in State and Local Government Awards have done just that, showing that useful, often money-saving ideas can spring from the supposedly gray ranks of bureaucracy.

Last year's winners ranged from Seattle's use of voice-mail technology to help homeless people establish phone addresses and thus have a better chance of finding work to a Columbia, S.C., program that transforms rundown properties into attractive, affordable homes for police.

By showcasing "successful models of innovation," Ms. Libbey says, the awards program hopes to encourage "creative governance" and demonstrate to the public that "good government is not an oxymoron."

How widely have award winners been copied? Libbey says she and her colleagues recently reviewed the first 50 innovation-award winners and found "tremendous replication rates." A good example, she says, is the "Parents as Teachers" program in Missouri. It trains parents to help with their child's intellectual development. The program has virtually been "franchised" nationwide, Mr. Lipsky says.

The $100,000 award given to Missouri in 1987 was used to set up a center for sharing information about the program. Replication efforts have included production of videos, public-education programs, and even travel money so officials could spread the word about their innovation. The Ford Foundation gives out $1.3 million each year for the awards, with $100,000 to the top 10 finalists and $20,000 to 15 runners-up.

Replication doesn't have to mean exact duplication of a program, Lipsky says. An award-winning effort in San Diego to create single-room occupancy dwellings for homeless people has spawned national legislation, he says. That illustrates how an idea can flow around even if a lot of similar programs don't sprout elsewhere.

Another past winner is a New York program to help single mothers on welfare make the transition to work. The concepts in that program have helped shape the welfare-reform thinking of the Clinton administration, Lipsky says. …