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
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
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
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.
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
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. …