Posted September 23, 2009, 9:00am
Good morning and welcome to our participants and to all those following the conversation. Social progress in such areas as education, homelessness, and economic mobility today is too slow and ineffective for too many, despite the numerous well-intentioned individuals tirelessly delivering services, government agencies running programs, and foundations funding good work. I think we would all agree that the progress we seek for our communities will require bold change in existing social production systems.
Many contributors to this conversation are members of the Executive Session of Transforming Cities Through Civic Entrepreneurship hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Thank you to those of you who have been around the table before and continue to generate and lead this discussion. Also, thank you to new participants whose valuable voices I trust will further push our thinking. Finally, thank you to NewTalk and Common Good for your enthusiastic partnership and leading the way in creating online forums like this one.
One could argue that we have enough good ideas, proven models and community solutions. In identifying and solving social problems, we need a sustained creative innovator that can not just come up with ideas, but one who is able to abandon the old. Over the course of our three days together for this online discussion, we will look to the challenge of growing and scaling those ideas to where they have changed the trajectory of the social systems in which they’re operating.
We begin with identifying the tensions and barriers in repurposing social service dollars to better performing models and programs. Tomorrow we will steer the discussion towards incentives and best practices; with the hope that by Friday we will have also identified a practical toolkit for overcoming these barriers.
This NewTalk event is unique as it is the continuance of a conversation we have been having since early 2008, but it is far from over. Professor Mark Moore has written an early draft of a Manifesto which you might want to take some time to read, whether to jog your memory or catch up to our thinking. We hope that this working draft can benefit from your thinking and welcome your thoughts.
I would like to start our conversation with a question: what are the incentives that politicians, public managers, and nonprofit/philanthropic leaders each face to stay with the status quo? What are the incentives to take risks on a new approach?
Posted September 23, 2009, 9:40am
Maintaining the status quo—if it's not broke don't fix it is the maxim, but the question is whether it’s broke. We often don't have data to tell us whether existing programs work or work as well as they should and the risks of wholesale change to the customers are pretty high. Therefore we stick with diminishing returns and mediocre results. Beyond this, on the political level, there are the interests of the providers of the status quo who will defend the value of their programs and question the wisdom and intent of the reformer, so waging a political battle has to be factored into the equation of change. And of course there is the risk of failure. Any person with ambition, elected official or non-profit CEO, will carry the mark of failure to be preyed upon in the next political cycle or promotional opportunity, if a radical new approach bombs out. And they know it's a lonely place to be.
Incentives to take risks of a new approach—I think the Manifesto unnecessarily puts types of people into camps and then calls on the civic entrepreneurs to challenge those with vested interests of one sort or another who are less willing or able to encourage change. It feels too polarizing and would give rise to an advocacy approach that could be as easily invested in the failure of institutions ("They can't or won't do it so we better tell them why and then tell them what they should be doing") and not invested in collaborative change. I would take a broader approach and think about how to encourage a culture of innovation throughout organizations and communities, from leaders who encourage and reward innovation even when it fails, to community leaders who partner with rather than against institutions. When was the last time anyone gave out an innovation award to a gutsy effort that didn't work? We don't want to award stupidity, but we do want to recognize the learning value of trial and error as part of the route to progress.
Posted September 23, 2009, 10:00am
There are many incentives that even the most courageous political leader or public manager face to stay with the status quo or, as I would describe it, barriers/obstacles to changing the status quo. Two examples:
- Time: to truly change a government system (from regulation to widespread adoption), it takes a tremendous amount of time. The political leader is left with a choice between a) trying to create better outcomes with existing systems to the extent possible or b) spending an entire term attempting to change a system without being able to create beneficial outcomes until the system change is complete.
- Will: there needs to be collective and widespread political will between leadership in the executive branch and legislative branch in order to bring about the necessary regulatory or statutory changes required to make significant change.
For a political leader or a public manager, the number one incentive to take new risks is the potential for large-scale success that benefits the majority of that leader's constituents.
Posted September 23, 2009, 10:28am
I really like your last comments. We need to have part of our strategy be dedicated to risk and experimentation shielded from the status quo. When I say shielded, I mean apart from, not necessarily antagonistic to, any institution. In that "experimentation area," we need to recognize that the ratio of failure to success will be 2 successes to every 5 failures. (Mine is lower than that, but I'm trying to put a nice face to the argument. :) )
Posted September 23, 2009, 10:38am
At the tactical level of the bureaucracy, the answer to both questions is “auditors.” The majority of procurement professionals, the people who are charged with spending public funds, fear these auditors more than anything and therefore take an ultra-conservative approach to their jobs. At the federal level, these auditors work for the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress, the Inspector General, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). They are tasked with making sure procurements are carried out "between the lines" of a complex set of rules and regulations.
Although the GAO has taken a more proactive approach in recent years, changing the longstanding bureaucratic policies of these organizations would be difficult.
The good news: many government procurement organizations also have internal control groups that act as a mechanism to save themselves from the more public and embarrassing “external” audit from one of the bodies mentioned above. An innovative procurement leader at the local or even federal level could incentivize innovation by instituting a two-fold approach to these internal audits: 1.) the typical between the lines review; 2.) a parallel review for cases where someone used an innovative approach to address a unique situation—regardless of success or failure.
Posted September 23, 2009, 10:48am
First, I think it's worth remembering there are many examples of real changes that have been accomplished by governments. Here in NYC alone, innovation drove crime to record lows, dramatically raised test scores in schools, and increased the life spans of residents—not so bad for creaky old bureaucracies. We should learn from success as well as from failure—what conditions allowed the status quo to be upended?
One key is changing expectations: it turns out police departments should prevent crime, not just catch criminals; and public health is about making people live healthier lives, not just avoiding the spread of diseases. Once there is a broader mandate, either because a crisis demands it or leadership with some new vision re-defines it, then governments can change their ways—otherwise, they only have permission to repeat what already exists.
The most serious barrier to change, of course, is blame. Every leader knows the first question to be asked after any initiative disappoints is, "Whose fault was this?"—and the anticipation of blame deeply restricts freedom of movement by elected as well as appointed officials. It would be nice if reporters and the commentariat asked instead, "What did we learn?" But that's increasingly unlikely in the vicious media cycle in which we live. Until, as Linda Gibbs noted, we're ready to hand out prizes for intelligent failures, real change will require more courage than we can expect from the vast majority of leaders.
Posted September 23, 2009, 10:59am
Thank you Tony! I agree that the premise was overly pessimistic. Look at welfare reform as well. Talk about upsetting apple carts and taking risks. It is a good example also of local level experimentation laying the groundwork for broader national change. The federal process for allowing governments to experiment is way too onerous however, and loosening up on this may give rise to more trials at the state and local level.
Posted September 23, 2009, 11:10am
In answer to your first question, I believe that the issue of "safe employment" is a major protector of the status quo regardless of sector. Organizations that value length of service or provide a safe haven for long term employment regardless of contribution create a culture which fights against innovation, nimbleness, and efficiency.
This seems to be a particular problem in the public sector where non-elected personnel regularly seem to be "protected." As a result, investments in technology lag, customer interactions are far too often insensitive and paper-based, and benchmarking against peer institutions is regularly resisted rather than embraced. In too many instances, significant change is not undertaken until a problem is so bad that there is a public outcry with elected officials reacting rather than leading. In short, creative dissatisfaction is not an internalized value.
The issue of "safe employment" also contributes to the status quo in many non-profits, especially in organizations which are largely dependent on donations rather than earned income. Embracing innovation and change is often seen as carrying with it the possibility of displacing long-term staff.
Posted September 23, 2009, 12:10pm
I like the idea, Jason, that our internal controls allow us to assess risks earlier, but I still think we (procurement professionals) are fundamentally challenged by a fear factor that must be overcome. Traditionalists need not apply, in my book, for leadership positions in public acquisition. What we need is to be part of the solution team, discussing and embracing an appropriate level of risk in support of progress that requires risks be taken.
Sadly, I realize that this is like BASE jumping: calculated risks are often rewarded, but only in those last couple seconds do you know if you over-extended yourself!
Posted September 23, 2009, 12:20pm
Let me ask some follow-up questions to a few observations and themes on challenges to social innovation.
- The first might be: Is there a process to unlock a new definition of public value—what is it we are trying to accomplish and are the outcomes really the right ones?
- Jason points out the problems of procurement. Is there any way to get the IG and auditors to agree that money well-spent (i.e., spent legally and ethically, and accounted for and documented) but which doesn’t produce the desired results can be viewed as a nice try rather than a grand failure? When I was mayor the reporters waited for my internal auditors to report and then ran the stories as exposes when all they did was track our own work.
- We see the following themes:
- Risk of failure—Is there a practical way to encourage risk taking and accept in advance the theme that innovation does not always equal success?
- Amount of time to accomplish changes and collective will—How can we change the cycle time?
- The plague of the auditors—What can be done for balance; how do we increase the positive side of the ledger? How do we build on Tony’s comments; what could private and public officials do to change the equation?
- The need to shield experimentation from the status quo—Sarah, can you provide more detail?
- Safe employment—Suzanne makes important comments on these obstacles. Can’t we reprogram existing employees, or change the culture, or even have them move to new organizations? Can we afford the status quo in terms of results?
Posted September 23, 2009, 12:40pm
Steve's first question about public value makes me think of the importance of thoughtfully defining the measurable goals for an audacious effort.
Here's an example of how messy that can get. In many school systems, projects are budgeted without including personnel costs. So a new innovation which is less expensive because it requires fewer district FTE’s to achieve the desired results appears to be more expensive when compared to the status quo budget which does not include costs of FTE’s. The headline for the innovation could read either "Results for Less!" or "Dollars Wasted!" depending on how the measurement gets defined.
Posted September 23, 2009, 1:00pm
Steve, I like this synopsis and will comment on a couple important points you make.
Being driven by process, rather than outcomes, is the bane of control functions like procurement and finance. We must shift our thinking to see ourselves as facilitators, trusted business partners of our clients, if we are ever going to succeed in supporting entrepreneurial solutions in government.
How to reduce cycle times? We must and will learn to work faster while not ignoring the responsibility that the procurement profession upholds to public integrity. The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is actually a catalyst to this new way of thinking, and new ways of viewing our ability to control and facilitate at the same time are emerging. These next months and years will force procurement to improve.
Posted September 23, 2009, 1:55pm
Good discussion. While we can (and should) try to make procurement smarter by focusing it on clearer and longer-term outcomes, we need to recognize that procurement will always include human judgment and politics. A way to get better decisions that more often lead to better long-term results, however, is to focus on who makes the judgments.
One promising model is to use public-private partnerships to allow public dollars to be mixed with private dollars and to have private sector and philanthropic leaders play a large role in decision-making. While this is no guarantee of better decisions, I would posit that it would outperform the status quo procurement system more often than not. This would also give some political cover to Government to allow them to use public dollars (blended with private dollars) to test innovations. Yes, they are giving away control, but it often happens that when you give away control you actually gain power.
Another promising model is to vary the locus of control. Most funding we compete for is federal money that flows to states and then to school districts, where ultimate decisions on where/how to spend are made. However, the local decisions are complicated by the overlay of state and national rules, and priorities and cascading funding lead to delays and compounding opportunities for bad judgment. I think Americorps has been quite brilliant in having three ways to disburse federal funding. In rough terms, one-third goes to states (and is then sub-granted) by formula; one-third goes to states and is competitive; and one-third goes to national organizations to spend on local projects. The effect, I believe, is an increase in opportunities for good judgment to be exercised and a reduced chance of local politics freezing a good idea.
Posted September 23, 2009, 2:10pm
One way that philanthropy (and even academia) can be helpful is through the creation of "safe houses" for experimentation by the government. When a group of community-oriented foundations work together with local public sector leaders to develop an institution for the creation, operation, and evaluation of experimental programs in a given field, then the risk of failure—and its handmaiden, blame—can be muted (private funding allows for private—but defensible—processes to be used for procurement and administration). Versions of this exist in a number of jurisdictions and for many different programmatic areas, but it is not clear to me that this notion has been well-studied or widely enough modeled.
The real problem is that, even if successful, such efforts do not deal with the far more difficult issues of scale. We are constantly treated to examples of single, heroic figures who have created wonderful programs that no average human could ever be expected replicate (worse, too often these extraordinary cases are used to somehow prove that success can be achieved without systemic reform). Few of the great changes in public service delivery came about through modest pilots that were positively evaluated, grew into bigger tests, and then into at-scale programs. Instead, real change initiatives—from ending the impoverishment of seniors through Medicare to changing the trajectory of crime in New York through Compstat—are often rolled out at scale. This is where the kind of leadership that accepts failure as an inevitable consequence of experimentation is required.
Posted September 23, 2009, 3:26pm
David, Good point. The ARRA provides a number of teachable moments—successes and failures. We should not miss the opportunity to analyze how and why some agencies were able to move so quickly (for example, the Corporation for National and Community Service awarded AmeriCorps stimulus funds to local organizations 2-3 months after ARRA bill signing) and others not.
Steve, to your question on risk of failure—on the practical side, something as simple as labeling an allocation of public funding as an ‘innovation fund’ creates a greater tolerance for risk. The next step is finding the sweet spot between zero and high-risk. We struggled far too long in Louisiana to determine how to invest our own ‘social innovation fund’ in a way that maximized public value.
At the federal level, we see the beginnings of a pattern to create innovation funds in agencies that have not traditionally had innovation funding: the CNCS Social Innovation Fund and DOE’s Invest in What Works and Innovation Fund. We also see that it is taking these agencies a long time (I feel their pain) in developing guidance for these funds. They are all struggling with where to be on the risk continuum.
Posted September 23, 2009, 3:43pm
A major missing factor is feedback from the consumer. For-profit services survive or diminish by how efficiently they help the consumer. By getting feedback from over a thousand low-income consumers, they tell us that many of the services provide good benefits—the original idea was good—but that the implementation fails them. And they have no way to impact the implementation. One family had to attend financial training and counseling as a prerequisite to knowing if they were eligible for a homeownership program. After several months of "training," they finally got a meeting with a financial planner who told them they weren't eligible for anything. An initial income screen would have prevented all of this.
When we tried to get the Mayor's director of homeownership program to adjust the guidelines, we ran into tremendous resistance. One of the Mayor's other staff commented that it is "easier to get families to fit the program than to adjust programs to fit the client." And if someone doesn’t like it, there are plenty of others who will jump through the hoops.
In general, we have run into more roadblocks at the staff level than at the top leadership level. The problem with the top leadership is that they don't often have the staying power or feedback from the consumers to drive their staff to make change.
Posted September 23, 2009, 3:50pm
Two questions for the group:
- Can anyone cite robust examples of "safe houses" or something analogous? If so, what might be the lessons?
- Regarding Tony’s issue of scale and heroic figures—are there not lessons other than: Without a heroic figure, no change, re: change?
Posted September 23, 2009, 4:15pm
I think there is a definite connection between ability to scale and availability of expansion capital. The union movement has a business model where union dues pay expenses—that is how they go to scale. Unions may be declining, but there are still about 13 million unionized Americans. Social movements can develop and grow for all sorts of reasons, but successful institution-building needed to sustain social change must have a revenue model to survive.
One of the difficulties of social mission organizations is figuring out where to go after the pilot is funded. In fact, the unemployment insurance system we now have was essentially started in New York City as a project of the Amalgamated Workers Union in the 1920's/1930's. That pilot went on to become a cornerstone of the New Deal. The nonprofit model of that era had a goal of taking private models to scale by evolving them into government programs. That model ended by the 1970's/1980's.
Since we lost the "government scale" model, maybe we could see new ways of leveraging public dollars. One potential way to create scale might be to repurpose some government programs so that a percentage of the total could go to innovators. Any procurement people out there have any ideas how that could work?!
Posted September 23, 2009, 4:18pm
I like the idea of public-private partnerships, but with the stipulation that mixed funding does not force compliance with the lowest common denominator—that being the over-control required for expenditure of public funds. Rather, as we set such a partnership up, I would like to see the allowance for experimentation and attendant "corrections" (I won't call them failures), and the type of investment model that allows us to learn by doing.
Posted September 23, 2009, 4:40pm
Very interesting discussion. Returning for a moment to Steve's original question on risk/incentives, I would position several barriers that are inhibiting us—both in the not-for-profit/government sectors and as a nation—and I would argue that incentives, powerful as they are, may not be the only (or primary) barrier.
First, there has been little by way of true leadership development (from the ground level, that is) with respect to building innovators. Our young people are not taught about how to effectively "lead" and "innovate" in our schools, and those who do emerge as true "innovators" are often lured to the rewards of the private sector. Incentives tend to achieve the intended outcome only when there is a fundamental and underlying orientation toward and understanding of the behavioral outcome that is desired. I can't develop incentives for parents to send their children to college if they have absolutely no idea about or orientation to what the "college going process" actually involves, nor a comprehensive understanding of the rewards that accrue for their child from a college education. We are failing as a nation in our ability to build innovative leaders. I'm not sure that incentives alone will solve the problem.
The second problem comes with regard to collaboration. Frank's question about heroic figures cuts right to the heart of this issue. The not-for-profit and social innovation sector—which has built itself on rugged individualism—now finds itself entering an era where collaboration will likely be one of the key elements of long-term survival. Yet there are few experts in this area (to teach others), and even fewer examples to point to, of large-scale successful implementations. I recently had the CEO of the YMCA in my offices. As we talked about our respective missions and common target constituents, I jokingly asked, "Why don't we merge the YMCA and the Urban League?" We both laughed. But why not? The fact is that we are not even able to have a serious discussion in that realm. This in turn is a serious barrier to "break-thru" innovation.
Posted September 23, 2009, 5:36pm
I think our anti-poverty work in New York City is a good example of Tony’s safe house—the conditional cash transfer experiment in particular. Too controversial in our opinion to start with public funds, we have created the program entirely with foundation support. We’ve engaged those foundations as our partners in arms to sell and defend the program, expanding the protective force around it. We’ve invested heavily in rigorous evaluation, and have a mayor who proudly says shame on us if we don’t try; and if it doesn’t work, we won’t continue it.
It sits within our larger Center for Economic Opportunity that applies the same evaluative framework to about 40 new initiatives testing approaches to poverty reduction.
Tony—does this meet your test?
Posted September 23, 2009, 5:45pm
Regarding Frank’s question (2) on scale and heroic figures—this is a real issue we see in education today. In recent years, visionary school leaders have taken similar inputs (chronic lack of resources, students who are 2-3 grade levels behind and bring the immense disadvantages of poverty, worn out communities) and achieved dramatically better outcomes. These examples provide powerful proof points and raise the bar for what we can and should deliver for all our students.
But while many of these entrepreneurs have ambitious plans to scale—and some have added new schools at a rapid clip, to equal success—it’s tough to see how, systemically, these individual operators will be able to replicate this success in the time frame and at the scale needed for our students and our country. These pockets of excellence are still a tiny percentage of all our nation’s schools. The problem is one of both human capital (per Tony’s superhero theory) and political will/capability to effect a more favorable context for these schools.
To significantly scale up, we’ll need to replicate their practices in a way that the average leader/teacher can deliver on, and also generate greater demand for change from the end consumer—in this case, students and families. Both imperatives require that we engage a much broader segment of our communities—to take on some of the heavy lifting that these heroic leaders have shouldered and that is not sustainable across entire systems, and to generate the demand for change that will provide political cover for the required reforms. Many of the most successful and admirable entrepreneurs have been reluctant to ‘let go’ and bring in others out of concern that doing so will lead to dilution and slipping expectations around the performance standards that have been so hard won. But at some point, we have to ask ourselves if we are overshooting, per Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. Would we be better off getting 100% of our schools to 80% perfection, rather than getting 1% of our schools to 100%?
Posted September 23, 2009, 5:50pm
Linda's example is certainly the kind of thing I was talking about, as was the Children First program that was used in the early stages of the education reform program in New York City—both engaged external funders and took advantage of non-public processes to advance new initiatives.
While we need new forms to tackle these issues, we also need to foster new leadership. I would submit that part of that challenge lies in creating incentives for public sector innovation that go beyond the crude financial benefits that are too commonly assumed to motivate people. We all know the vast bulk of excellent people in the public and non-profit sectors could do far better financially in corporate jobs, yet they stay because of a commitment to the mission. In government, however, even those who arrive excited and energized find themselves subject to denigration publically (the joys of tabloid life) and even privately—one of the reasons so many young people opt for short-term teaching careers that they eventually abandon has to do with this lack of (non-financial) rewards. If we found ways to celebrate excellence (where we find it) rather than highlighting mediocrity, we might encourage more of the leaders and innovators we're seeking to join and stay in public service.
Posted September 23, 2009, 6:00pm
I agree with Tony’s point re: talent—many entrepreneurs seeking to scale up great ideas will say that hands down, the biggest bottleneck is talent. But in addition to ensuring the right incentives, we also need to focus more on training/development. We’re seeing growing numbers of young talent seeking to move in into non-profit/government work, but we haven’t figured out yet as a sector how to nurture and develop the talent pipeline to move into growing levels of responsibility, which becomes a critical need in fast-growing enterprises.
Posted September 23, 2009, 6:30pm
As our first day of what has been a terrific dialogue comes to a close, a few observations and questions for the group to return to tomorrow:
We have developed a long, thoughtful list of obstacles and the beginning of a discussion on how to recalibrate the current system. The suggestions like safe houses and innovation funds look, in large part, at how to develop good ideas. Related issues are how to implement, operationalize, and take these new ideas to scale. Linda and Tony have described conditions under which innovative ideas have advanced in New York City: with external funding, collaboration with foundation partners to provide cover, rigorous evaluation, and a supportive leader, Mayor Bloomberg. Iris and others have described the challenges of leadership, the talent pipeline, and scalability. Tomorrow we might incorporate the following considerations into our discussion:
- Effective and efficient collaboration: Blair’s comments about collaboration are fascinating. Although collaboration is an important issue it also can be a problem if it requires consensus that is gained by diluting the model of change. How do we guard against this?
- Impetus for change: How do we overcome barriers to innovation where there is no true market—when government and foundation money dominate the delivery system rather than consumers? On a related note, how do we measure change? More specifically, how do we avoid defining progress in terms of the growth or scaling of an organization rather than an idea or a solution?
- Leadership and scale: We have repeatedly raised the issue of leadership in social service programs. Is there a way to systematize change without the proverbial heroic leader?
Posted September 23, 2009, 8:40pm
Sara asked an interesting question about taking a percentage of total (budget) for a government program and setting that aside for innovators. That would require collaboration between the executive and legislative branches, a rare circumstance it seems, but one which would take the blame game out of play. Maybe that is exactly the type of collaboration that would support innovation and embrace the possibility of mistakes without making mistakes seem so fatal.
Could this be the type of collaboration you mention, Steve, that doesn't dilute the model of change?
Posted September 24, 2009, 6:32am
My apologies to the group. I have read the manifesto again and more carefully. So some corrections to my response.
First, the premise of stalled progress has to be challenged. See Tony's notes from yesterday and many more examples that are possible. But the conclusion that most systems are not performing well (a permanently failing status quo) as the starting point harms the discussion.
That being said: Second, the concept of civic entrepreneurship is a good one and does not have to be polarizing. I like the theme—"acting on a public issue even when no one has explicitly authorized, paid, or required them to do so"—if it is productively engaged and supported.
Posted September 24, 2009, 9:13am
Good morning all,
The notion that collaboration and the possibility that in striving for consensus we may dilute the model of change has been so deeply ingrained that it will take a profound shift in behavior to bring some of our solutions to scale. Whatever populations we are attempting to affect have been conditioned over time to accept being relegated to the sidelines, and assume that experts alone "solve" problems. Public Agenda's and the Kettering Foundation's work with communities in education, health care, environmental issues, and others depends on developing a sense of agency among all who would take on the serious and hard work of solving urgent problems.
In local meetings with average citizens, educators, elected officials, and agency leaders held to truly deliberate over impending policy initiatives, if everyone is expected to bring something to the table and everyone's experience matters, then the model may be tinkered with, though not necessarily diluted as the practice of give and take establishes the collaborative nature of true problem solving...or, as Iris put it yesterday, to struggle for solutions and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Posted September 23, 2009, 9:14am
We at Living Cities have learned a lot about collaboration, having been a collaboration of 20+ foundations and financial institutions for 18 years. I actually don't think it is a problem if you can agree on what you are trying to achieve, but a lot has to go into that—and then a lot has to go into data collection to see what you did accomplish. Not knowing where you want to go and no way to see if you got there are big, big collaboration problems. Plus, it needs to have leadership—from all sectors—to work, especially the more ambitious you want to be with the goals. Leadership can't be just from the public sector because they come and go, and it can't be just from fragile NGOs. You have to create a culture of multi-sector leadership—some very local (street cred), some not so much but wildly influential (i.e., the mayor or governor answers his/her call). Some of the NGO leadership may have to be built to be strong enough over time. Successful collaboration needs multiple successful leaders who can deliver different things. Patience and long term stewardship are really big challenges.
Posted September 24, 2009, 9:28am
Yesterday we tried to identify incentives to maintaining the status quo—one of a number of barriers to innovation and change in the social sector. Our list included avoiding the political battles or protectionism from incumbent providers; the professional and personal costs of failure and blame; the long-time horizons of both social progress and system change; the cost of finding or animating the political will for change; the “gotcha” culture of auditing agencies and the media; restrictive and prescriptive local rules that come with federal dollars; and seeking “safe employment” and rewarding employees for longevity and loyalty over entrepreneurship or performance.
Other barriers identified were the lack of consumer feedback, or market discipline; the lack of local leadership development; the zero-sum or politically competitive atmosphere in which non-profits operate (a result, I would argue, of our basing funding decisions on connections and the momentum of the status quo rather than performance); and the logistical difficulty of measuring and rewarding performance and results. I think it’s safe to say we have identified as many as we can expect to “solve” over the next two days.
Yesterday we also discussed a number of potential solutions—for example, models for creating the space for incubating, importing or experimenting with new innovations. Today let’s discuss how we create the space or culture for growing and scaling those innovations—whether through a new collaborative network, as an idea or principle adopted by others, or within a single organization. When it comes to growing an idea across a system and abandoning the old—are there solutions parallel to New York City’s Center for Economic Opportunity or “safe houses” that protect pilots from stifling political opposition? The White House Social Innovation Fund, for example, will look to help spread or grow innovations proven in one city to other cities across the country.
Also at the end of yesterday, the group touched on the types of incentives—and not money—that would: drive more collaboration within the sector without discouraging change; reach down deeper into the communities we’re trying to serve to amplify the voices of citizens; and attract innovative and risk-tolerant staff to the public and nonprofit sectors. What are the other strategies we might want to incent—and be held accountable for—in order to create a culture of continuous improvement? And how might we go about doing it?
Posted September 24, 2009, 9:32am
Thanks for all the rich thoughts. To Steve’s question about impetus for change, and the fact that customers in the social change economy don’t have capital, I believe there is a lot to be gained through inclusion and engaging the social change “consumers.” Earlier, Maurice hit on the importance of looking at consumer feedback. I’m also interested in enlisting the consumer in driving measurable progress on the social change goals.
I’ve seen high schools where seniors have organized to lower 9th grade dropout rates, in concert with the principal and lead educators. When the students are in a meeting discussing how they are doing on their metric goals, the behavior and attitudes of the adults changes. The consumers’ skin in the game provides cover for leaders driving to the same goal, lowering the risk. It’s really fascinating how the presence of the students helps everyone focus more on the results and less on the needs of their respective fiefdoms.
But it’s challenging to engage the consumer like this. How can we build their capacity to work with data actionably, to develop and manage execution plans, to communicate effectively to mobilize their constituency? Some of this is classic community organizing work, but some of this is new terrain. How much grassroots development can be done when civic leaders have short time frames? And there’s a lot of hard work required to get the different constituencies, and the customers, aligned on the same measurable goal. But if that can be accomplished the rewards in terms of reduced risk for leaders, and improved results, are powerful.
Posted September 24, 2009, 9:35am
That is what I meant. It would address two big issues: 1) the need to allow for failure, and 2) access to government revenue as a source for growth capital.
Posted September 24, 2009, 9:40am
I second Deborah's comments and add this experience—
I learned a valuable lesson from the Casey Foundation (team Nelson, Mattingly, Feely) about engaging partners—some say stakeholders—in the process of reform that did not come naturally to me. The concept was that the reform process needs to be collaborative and include room for all to be at the table in planning, thinking and continuously improving. The struggle for the government official is to create a safe space for the conversation and honestly hear the input, and even to defer to consensus at the right moments even when it is contrary to the official's instinct for the best choice, without ceding decision making responsibility. Its a really tough balance but when it works it’s great.
I have used the model consistently since my days in child welfare and I think it creates a lot of trust and respect. It ferrets out points of brilliance from all the sectors, and ultimately allows participants to recognize the responsibility of government to make the final call.
Posted September 24, 2009, 10:14am
I’m not sure I agree with Linda here. I think NYC and other great examples of government innovation and effectiveness in driving change (Tony’s examples from yesterday) are wonderful exceptions that prove the rule—which is that government is not doing as well as it can or should at solving problems. I think Mark Moore is right in this regard. In education, we spend twice as much as a generation ago (after inflation), but have lower graduation rates, flat achievement scores among high school students, and now lower college-going and completion rates relative to other developed nations. In health care there is a similar story. Why?
I want to return to the question Steve raised yesterday about what we can learn from wonderful positive outliers. I suspect a key to New York’s success has been, as Tony suggested, choosing bold and big change over incrementalism (a part of the local culture?). I think a critical mass of heroic talent has also been essential, as the schools and other functions have flooded the zone with energetic talent at all levels. Maybe a big philanthropic sector and government agencies starting to adopt an investment mentality have also been critical. What else?
Posted September 24, 2009, 10:57am
Thanks for the invitation to join this session. Here in the UK we are grappling with exactly these issues, with health as probably the lead sector (with some 32,000 social enterprises already under contract). A few years ago, the aim of funds was mainly on the supply side—to identify the best new innovations and social enterprises and then scale them up through investment. But the argument has moved on to a more systemic approach, focusing on the demand side as well—what are the conditions for public purchasers and commissioners to adopt innovations? So the aim in the health service here is to have a range of funds (for individual social entrepreneurs, growing social enterprises, as well as promising innovations, etc.)—but also to require the holders of public money to demonstrate that they are commissioning innovations (through performance management procedures, annual reports, and so on), and to empower users (through web feedback sites like NHS Choices, and through giving groups of patients some power over service design—e.g., through an expert patients programme). Alongside the aim is to have transparent metrics that can assess performance (in terms of QALYs—life years, as well as social impacts). I know very similar discussions are underway around the Education Innovation Fund too. Our other big lesson is that we need much better ways to incubate promising ideas, which is hard to do within most NGOs. Incubators seem to work best if they are inside and outside at the same time—sufficiently inside to know what commissioners etc. will be willing to pay for, but sufficiently outside to be creative and in touch with the public. A model which has started working very well here is ‘social entrepreneurs in residence’—employed by us (an NGO), but paid for by and located within public organisations. A similar model is being experimented with in Australia with embedded intermediaries—again, to get supply and demand linking up more effectively than in the older models, which were just about investing in organisational growth.
Posted September 24, 2009, 11:52am
Hello, all. I'd like to suggest a structural approach. There are too many rules and too much process in every area of government. It's like asking people to be creative when they work in a legal jungle, wrapped up in vines.
But public officials have been trapped in bureaucracy for so long that innovation takes more than just cutting back the jungle.
Many good points have been made here, and I would put in the following list for change:
- Overhaul structures to focus on goals, not rules and processes.
- Reduce the fear factor by giving the boss the power to make exceptions, approve risks, etc. At successful public schools, teachers almost always talk about how the principal protects them from bureaucracy. Leadership can trump fear. Successful procurement experiments have had officials who were willing to take responsibility.
- Picking up on Linda's point, make innovation a collaborative process. Top-down dictates are just another form of bureaucracy. Let every department do things its own way. What do all successful teachers have in common? Nothing. (Or not much.) Success is always idiosyncratic.
- Aside from bureaucracy, distrust of everyone else may be the main disease of modern government. Here, auditors and evaluators can be the solution, not the enemy. Just judge people on how they do. But they must be judged not on compliance, but on results. They must be judged not on every mistake but overall performance. Everyone must be accountable. Today we have accountability by avoiding error; what we need is accountability for accomplishment. Then we might see innovation.
Posted September 24, 2009, 12:21pm
In the Reader Comments, Stephen Buckley describes fear as a disincentive to innovation like this: "(1) the general public dislikes experiments that 'fail', then (2) elected politicians do not feel safe in allowing experimentation, and that means (3) the political appointees do not feel safe and, so, (4) the government managers do not feel safe, and that means (5) the government employees-with-an-idea do not feel safe either."
At the same time, a number of folks have reminded us of the potential and even the mandate for more citizen involvement in community problem solving—whether as customers or patients, taxpayers, volunteers, or activists—in both identifying and solving social problems.
Connecting both streams to the call for creating a structure (as important as a culture?) of continuous improvement, might we flip the above to envision an incentive for innovation: (1) we create more opportunity for individuals to share feedback on performance—whether through choice or through mechanisms that capture their own evaluation of a service or data on collective outcomes—while also mobilizing citizens to make their expectations for a higher level of performance known; (2) elected politicians respond to this public demand by calling for change; (3) political appointees feel the push for their agencies to innovate; (4) government managers are held accountable (and rewarded) for making bets on new approaches; and (5) government employees embrace change and feel safe to share their own ideas.
Posted September 24, 2009, 12:43pm
I think the hardest part of this remains the questions of scaling up results. The first pre-requisite, as so many of us have already discussed, is the need to create opportunities for innovation—which means resources for experimentation, political cover for the inevitable failures that will occur, and acceptance of periodic procedural deviations when needed. Second, we need better strategies for dissemination—I think we all know how isolated state and especially local officials can become, leading them to depend on consultants to spread new ideas, but often at a very high cost. The third challenge, and I think the hardest, will be making change at scale occur. Pilots based on a leader's charisma or moments of miraculous cohesion among interests are hard to scale up. The key question remains the one Iris noted: how to create significant change that can be implemented by average people in the large systems that are involved. That means investing in the people who manage and deliver the services—so we can shift the curve of quality out a bit from where we are today in too many public sector agencies—and providing the (mostly) non-financial incentives for excellence that will motivate them.
Posted September 24, 2009, 1:26pm
Tony has given us 4 areas for further discussion:
- Going to scale
- Empowering all, especially those close to the front lines, to implement change
We have some examples of strategies and models for enabling experimentation—e.g., NYC’s Center for Economic Opportunity.
Can anyone give us robust examples of 2, 3, or 4?
Posted September 24, 2009, 2:03pm
I’ve been under the weather, but now that my head is cleared a bit this is a wonderful conversation. For now I will stick with the consumer feedback aspect. As JB and others can attest, having the consumers be in some control of the change process is likely to yield better and more sustainable results. The Whitehall Studies by Sir Michael Marmot strongly indicated that a sense of control over your life made a clear difference in how the civil servants studied managed their lives and jobs. They could trace the difference in the release of cortisol, which can deteriorate a person’s ability to cope. Middle- and upper-income people exercise control in what they choose and when those services are needed. In our project, the more control we give to those willing to step forward (and there are many!), the more growth and staying power the families exhibit.
In Boston (where we have a project), the Mayor’s office is interested in getting and responding to this type of feedback to give families a stronger role. Since the 1,000+ families we enroll must all report monthly, they will be asked to rate the services they have used on a “Yelp” scale with comments. The response from the funders and policymakers has been extremely positive, but there is strong reticence from the service community. But if funders do provide more adequate funding partly based on consumer feedback, the best providers should actually fare better.
Posted September 24, 2009, 2:30pm
Just to clarify—there are 3 avenues for scale that I can see:
- A non-profit creates a successful model and the non-profit takes it to scale.
- A non-profit creates a successful model and government takes it to scale.
- Government creates a successful model and government takes it to scale.
Posted September 24, 2009, 2:56pm
I realize I am coming in late today, but I do want to put a thought or two on the table about scale. The notion of “scale” is one that is often batted about, but one that I think should cause us all some pause. I don’t believe we’ve strategically thought about it on a macro level the way we need to. I spoke to the Gates Foundation recently, and they talked about their costly mistakes on scale—namely, that they tried to do it before they actually fully proved their models. We see some of this happening now in various sectors, including education, where some Charter Management Organizations are pushing hard for excessively rapid growth at all costs. We all desire to move our innovations to the next level, but the key questions are when, and with which models do we move? Have we built the systems, and used the minds of our best and brightest nationally to ensure that our innovations are actually ready to “jump” from one community to dozens? As one who wrestles with this very problem weekly with respect to our own Neighborhoods@Work model, I do not believe that we (collectively) have been deliberate in setting a national structure (perhaps through our universities, or other organizations such as foundations) that focuses in like a laser on this vital issue. In our case, we are almost inventing our own wheel (or “scale” process) while we drive the bus. And while government can assist, like many other voices have already expressed, I too am very cautious about leaving it to government to solve/lead.
With respect to the continuous improvement of models (to Steve’s original question), I would strongly encourage us to constantly think holistically. One of the outcomes of the LA League’s efforts to build a multi-disciplinary model in Los Angeles (ours focuses on improving education, health, housing, safety and employment simultaneously in a geographically constrained area) is that other agencies/entities—those who never before thought about things holistically—have begun to work together collaboratively (in highly innovative ways) to solve age-old issues. The school police, Sheriff’s Dept, and the California Hwy Patrol are finally working together on crime around schools; several major city departments, such as the the Community Development Dept, have literally changed the way they do business, and they publicly attribute it to the learning stemming from our model; many of the State of California’s myriad depts are now working with each other and local municipal governments in new ways as a direct result of our MOU with the state. We certainly do not have all the answers in our 3-year-old effort. But I am now 100% convinced that holistic, integrated approaches hold the key to creating sustainable, continuous improvement, and also perhaps to addressing some of the issues of collaboration raised yesterday.
Posted September 24, 2009, 3:07pm
We’ve been doing a project (at the Young Foundation) to map the methods used at each stage of social innovation, roughly dividing the stages into 6, which incorporates Frank’s 4 areas. They start with the prompts and drivers to innovate, which include social movements, anger, research etc; then they look at how these translate into ideas/proposals; then how they are turned into pilots/experiments/trials; then how the successful ones become embedded in a policy, a venture or business; then how they are scaled and grown; and finally how systemic change happens, usually with a change in relationships and power structures. Many examples aren’t as linear as this, but it provides a useful framework. We’ve surveyed 500 methods in total (from finance and design to evaluation and organisational models) with case studies on each, so there’s no shortage of examples. Good current ones on dissemination might include the spreading of ideas around plug-in cars, or resilience teaching in schools. For going to scale, examples might include Family/Nurse Partnerships or intermediate Labour Markets (though a striking message of the research is that most high impact social ideas don’t scale through organisational growth but through other routes). On empowerment, some good current examples include (for front-line staff) nurse social entrepreneur programmes, or Finland’s teacher-led innovation models, and (for citizens) participatory budgeting in South America and Panchayats using new powers in tribal areas in India.
Posted September 24, 2009, 3:11pm
To add to Sarah’s scaling trilogy: when ‘government takes something to scale,’ it sometimes does so through government-delivered services (all universal full-day kindergarten as an extension of public schools) and sometimes it does it through non-profits and a sub-granting process (as with Head Start, after-school, and many social services).
Each approach presents challenges, and in each case there are success stories, but not enough of them. In both cases, talent of the front-line delivery staff is essential. As has been said, much of the challenge of scaling is a challenge of talent—how do you get really good at hiring, managing, training, and occasionally firing front-line staff who make services work or not? How can government do this better—either when doing the hiring and training itself or when delegating it to non-profits?
Posted September 24, 2009, 3:15pm
Sara, would you consider scale through spread a fourth avenue?
There are examples of successful models that have achieved scale through spread and have made positive impacts, such as the volunteer fire department. Andrew Wolk recently blogged on this as an innovative approach that can and has been adapted in countless communities across the country. (More than 70% of firefighters in the US are volunteers.) The model shares the cost with public/private funding, uses volunteer labor, and provides critical service to community.
Shouldn’t we also focus on ways in which we can encourage scale through spread—without diluting quality of service provided?
Posted September 24, 2009, 3:20pm
Funding is the bottom line for any initiative to go to scale, so I believe we can target two sources:
- Government sources
- Philanthropic sources
But these sources require ongoing efforts that gain feedback and evaluation. If we provide these tools to Foundations etc., the non-profits and government programs will respond in order to survive. I sit on the board of two foundations (California Endowment & Hitachi), and it is clear that we are struggling in our decision-making process. But Foundations in particular tend to follow one another, though they do not generally collaborate. In the near future, I will be meeting with the President of a major evaluation agency. If they are able to add what is missing, more immediate feedback so programs can adjust in real time, we may be able to influence funding streams and not wait for longitudinal studies that require no changes in the program.
Funding initiatives like the Social Innovation Fund and New Profit, Inc. are great examples of unrestricted and, most importantly, Un- categorical funds that simply look for success in any realm.
Posted September 24, 2009, 3:25pm
If we move beyond defining scale as growing an individual organization—which I would agree with—then we should consider social innovators or civic entrepreneurs outside of those delivering services. Whether scaling nationally or scaling within a defined place, civic entrepreneurs include:
- Traditional grassroots advocates calling for “better” not necessarily “more”;
- Those like Linda and New York’s Center for Economic Opportunity that set the stage for other innovators;
- Social movement builders; and
- Activist philanthropists who leverage their dollars for social change.
Along with those Geoff has noted, what are the different levers for scaling change—or, equally important, for creating the opportunity for others to scale—that these types of civic entrepreneurs utilize?
Posted September 24, 2009, 3:30pm
I hope that I'm not going off in an unhelpful direction but I think there is another approach to scaling different in spirit, if not language, from the other 3 or 4 set out by Sarah or Eric below. There are an emerging and growing number of innovations that are built to scale immediately—the incremental cost of the next user is nominal or zero. They were not built as a retail program in one place that someone then brings everywhere. These are largely technology-driven but can be 'adopted' anywhere and everywhere without start-up talent spread throughout the country.
Posted September 24, 2009, 3:35pm
Scaling by spread is a very important addition. Alcoholics Anonymous, community foundations, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving are all great examples of ideas that spread far and wide without much or any public funding, and without a big non-profit or the traditional tools we associate with scaling. This happens less in core areas of government service.
But if Lee Schorr is right that every problem in America is being solved somewhere in America, why aren't these solutions scaling or spreading more effectively?
Posted September 24, 2009, 4:00pm
Can you give us more on these technology-driven innovations, as well as examples?
Posted September 24, 2009, 4:30pm
A few examples:
- Online learning software with or without real time human interaction—e.g., kids go online for self-directed courses with live help available or adults go online for ESOL.
- Online/telephone service delivery with or without real time human interaction—e.g., online tax preparation with EITC or online/telephone financial counseling/mortgage assistance.
- Online public benefit eligibility tools (for all public benefits) usable by all jurisdictions that approve benefits and send them electronically to the appropriate agency for processing.
Posted September 24, 2009, 5:19pm
Sorry I’m once again weighing in at end of day—tough to get to computer this week!
Re: technology spread—one recent example is the Obama campaign, with the inspiration or idea providing the spark and technology taking over from there, providing people with the immediate opportunity to participate. Social change movements like Alan Khazei’s Service Nation and New Profit’s America Forward follow a similar model, relying heavily on virtual distribution channels.
I would like to add two thoughts to the mix:
- Re: the importance of consumer ‘demand’ in inspiring and providing cover for large-scale change—part of the problem is not just lack of access capital to drive change, but lack of knowledge capital. Often our end consumers in the social change sector have only seen the services they are stuck with and therefore don’t know what “better” looks like. For example, post-Katrina, when New Orleans students were displaced to Houston public schools—which were by no means stellar but were better than the schools back home—their families were reportedly outraged to see how much better public education could be than what they had settled for back home. With more equal information, we might drive up demand.
- Re: collaboration—many of us are talking about working better together but realizing that no one owns or has a vision of the broader ecosystem and so there is a coordination problem. Which of us is best positioned to take on what angle of the same problem, so we can drive change more efficiently? This is becoming more of a problem as we all talk about scaling up. Should someone own or manage this ecosystem, and, if so, who is the best party to do so?
Posted September 24, 2009, 5:30pm
Picking up on Eric’s point from earlier, I wonder the extent to which the issue is one of supporting more innovation, or of identifying desired outcomes and spreading/scaling approaches that have proven successful on a smaller scale.
What is the desired balance between:
- innovation (we need more resources, talent, etc. directed at innovation, and more collaboration and political will to support the risk associated with innovation), and
- identifying and spreading innovations that have been proven effective on a smaller scale (defining effectiveness; defining who should determine success; figuring out how resources flow towards proven innovations; training and cultivating talent in service delivery and operations; etc.)?
We may need to explore the balance of resource flow between supporting innovation and new approaches vs. supporting the measurement of outcomes and the dissemination or spread of innovations that deliver those outcomes.
Posted September 24, 2009, 6:00pm
A few thoughts as we end today's discussion and move into our last day:
Yesterday, we discussed incentives to maintain the status quo and other barriers to innovation. Eric’s observation this afternoon is accurate: he cited Lisbeth Schorr’s belief that we already have the solutions among us and then asked, “Why aren't these solutions scaling or spreading more effectively?” What growth we do see tends to occur in pockets. Thus the second topic, which we covered today, looked at why we cannot expand an idea more quickly once we see that it works.
What have we learned over the last two days that we can put into action when it comes to improving our ability to grow our best social innovations and influence social systems? The development of front-line talent and the availability of performance-based funding, both public and philanthropic, have been raised. As were: being smarter about determining when and which models to scale; setting a national structure for scaling what works in the social sector; and employing more holistic, integrated approaches. Let’s spend tomorrow on more strategies for growing what works. As usual, specific examples like Brooke’s on volunteer firefighting are helpful. What are the specific lessons from these and other experiences? (By the way, I would like to hear more responses to my earlier post about other types of civic entrepreneurship…)
Also for tomorrow, I suggest we consider to what extent we are inhibited by the fact that one primary answer to scale is government funding, yet it is government whose practices we are trying to change.
Posted September 24, 2009, 9:49pm
It has been an enormous pleasure to monitor this conversation over the past two days. Many of the lessons that run through the conversation are dear to my heart: using private dollars to create a (relatively) safe space for innovation, creating new opportunities for citizens to collaborate with government, creating model projects that test new ideas, thinking through the challenges of replication—these are things that we do every day at the Center for Court Innovation. We are a non-profit that has forged a unique relationship with the New York court system. They essentially have hired us to function as their independent research and development arm. Over the years, we have found numerous advantages to this model which, as Geoff points out, offers us the access of inside players along with the perspective and freedom of outsiders.
But beyond deepening my faith in the value of public-private partnership, what really struck a chord with me over the past two days were the comments about needing to change the public sector's relationship to failure. As it happens, my colleague Aubrey Fox and I are just putting the finishing touches on a book that attempts to mine lessons from the failed criminal justice experiments of the past generation. One of the things that we've learned in the process is that once you get past the failures that are due to gross negligence or major corruption, the line between success and failure becomes exceedingly blurry. For example, DARE—a program that sends police into schools to lead drug prevention classes—is often derided for failing to reduce substance abuse. But if you take a closer look at DARE, it has achieved some fairly impressive ancillary results, including strengthening the often troubled relationship between police and young people. On the flip side, many of the most well-regarded criminal justice programs—initiatives like drug courts and Operation Ceasefire—have succeeded in some places but failed miserably in others.
Political actors, funders and the media tend to ask just one question of an innovation: "does this program work or not?" The truth is almost always more subtle than that. Some programs work in some places some of the time. And even the best, most well-implemented programs cannot offer quick fixes or magical solutions to deeply entrenched problems like poverty, crime, substandard education, etc.
This is not, of course, a particularly sexy message to deliver to policymakers, let alone the general public. But I would argue that until we have a more honest conversation about what the public sector can realistically be expected to achieve with the limited tools at its disposal, we will continue to breed a culture of disappointment, distrust and cynicism about government. And that's why I have found the exchanges of the past two days so invigorating: because I think they have been a model of forthright exploration of the challenges of trying to achieve change within large, complicated institutions.
Posted September 25, 2009, 9:00pm
Good morning all. We’re pleased about the conversation thus far and hope you’ve all found it equally interesting! Today we hope to build on Eric’s key question: What’s keeping community solutions that we know work from scaling or spreading?
Yesterday afternoon I suggested that no matter what the approach, the barriers to scale are similar. Do you agree that they are the same across approaches—whether a national non-profit’s idea adopted by local governments, a state government pilot that becomes national policy, a non-profit program adopted by local non-profits across the country, better coordinating services in a particular neighborhood, scaling an idea until it reaches a critical mass in one place, etc.? Are they the same as those barriers to innovation we identified on Day One?
Also, can we look at one set of entrepreneurs as creating more opportunities for others? For example, policy and grassroots entrepreneurs making the space for change by others?
Let’s spend today on possible strategies and tactics, along with specific lessons from our own or others’ experience, for growing proven, innovative solutions—both within the same community and into new communities.
And to keep us really challenged, let’s consider (as I suggested last night) to what extent we are inhibited by the fact that the answer to scale often entails government funding, yet it is government whose practices we are trying to change.
Posted September 25, 2009, 9:30pm
Frank and Steve, I really think this frame is all about replacing one intermediator with another, newer one (whether it is a non-profit or the government). That is totally legitimate and it is what 'reform' is all about. But I think it ignores real innovation which uses technology to disintermediate the intermediators who often get in the way of what has to be done, allows one innovation to spread immediately around the world, and gets around the age old problem of simply building a better mousetrap. I think real opportunities for scaling innovation will be able to come from when we innovate products and services that people can do themselves. It is not a replacement for reform but it continues to get short shrift both practically and financially, and by government. It totally ignores disintermediation, or ways to go directly to the people we are trying to help and taking out the intermediary.
Posted September 25, 2009, 9:40pm
I have been following this fascinating conversation in snippets with great awe. During the ebbs and flow of it, I’ve often heard the voice of Victor Hugo: “No invading army can stop an idea whose time has come.” I think that is at the root of what causes something to spread. Eric’s good examples of AA and MADD speak to this. They spread more as generative networks. To be answered is: Why? I think part of the answer is: the clarity of the problem, people’s emotional connection to it, a simple and known solution that gives people the power to solve it for themselves, the creation of support networks, some type of moral suasion, and a popularizer. We deal with very dynamic systems that don’t respond well to linear solutions. Often the solutions are based on rationalism in a non-rational world. Nicholas Christakis’s pioneering work on illness and social networks is providing important insights, I think. At Knight, we’re interested in system-changing ideas. We’ve focused on transforming the systems that impact the result we want to improve. In doing so, we examine questions of networks and scale. When Ben raised technology as an analog for consideration, I think he partly could have been referring to the power of networks which we are learning more about through the internet.
Posted September 25, 2009, 9:50am
Well said. Technology solutions aimed directly at and delivered to those who are going to benefit from the services are able to go to scale far more quickly than solutions that rely on adoption and promotion by local entities, regardless of whether they are governments or non-profits.
Posted September 25, 2009, 10:15am
Yes, networks would be a huge part of it—from people directly helping people, to mass problem-solving. I also think of micro giving and lending types of things.
Posted September 25, 2009, 11:28am
Ben has given us a fifth way to consider scaling. It is one that uses technology in ways that Maurice and Paula would, I think, find congruent. Ben’s post suggests that this new way would not need regular reform since it would be constantly adjusting and adapting. Does this additional method of scaling encounter the same obstacles as the other ways of going to scale? Is it a whole new way of doing the business of service delivery?
Also, going back to Steve’s charge this morning, how does this technology-driven, disintermediated approach answer Steve’s question: “Let’s consider…to what extent we are inhibited by the fact that the answer to scale often entails government funding, yet it is government whose practices we are trying to change”?
Posted September 25, 2009, 11:30am
I may be tackled for bringing this into the discussion, but when we discuss technology as it relates to scale, I feel compelled to address the growing trend in other countries to establish electronic social stock exchanges. In addition to providing a mechanism to generate more private capital, many countries have used the social stock exchange to create market forces in the social services sector and to support scale/spread. Brazil’s Social and Environmental Stock Exchange (BVS&A) contains examples of innovations that have not only become capitalized but have now become public policy and have been replicated across the country.
Posted September 25, 2009, 11:50am
Scale vs. innovation: Once it’s at scale, it’s no longer innovative. So continuous change, democratic institutions, and discussions are important.
Data and outcomes—where are we going? Maybe scale isn't always the solution. If there are 50 approaches that all get the desired outcome, who cares if none is to scale? There’s been lots of discussion on the importance of flexibility in meeting outcomes. Should we discuss how to agree upon shared outcomes?
Research/evidence/dissemination in social services: There’s a big hole in this world—no National Institute of Poverty Research. We have too little rigorous evaluation and fewer vehicles for dissemination.
If we had more evidence and true cost-benefit techniques, then the strategy would sell itself.
Posted September 25, 2009, 11:58am
I don’t believe that movement forward is linear. In our case, where there are two sides—those that control resources and those that are to benefit from those resources—change has to happen on both sides. I believe it is an iterative process that builds by each encouraging the other. While we who at least influence resources have worked especially hard these last three days, I know that families also want to have processes that are their own, like AA and MADD. Since every family we work with gets a computer, we are finding that the parents and teens are sharing, teaching, and learning with one another. There are nascent movements of different sizes and shapes emerging. Technology is a leveling factor and must be used more, just as we are using it today, but it must be made more accessible to those we want to help.
Posted September 25, 2009, 12:40pm
I believe Linda is right. Ultimately, this has to be about outcomes. But what those are and who defines them may take some innovation. If it is the same government or policy entities, we will have the same results. Again, the one large voice missing is the consumer, and we can use technology to either get that information or to monitor what the consumers’ needs and preferences are (poor people’s Yelp, e.g.).
There are existing programs that do work, and others are being developed, but they should be measured. A cost-benefit analysis is not that difficult (it’s the engineer in me). The former director of California’s Employment Development Department told me that his Department was funding training and job retention programs that cost $15,000 a person just to get them an average rise in income of 8%. He said, “I could have sent that person $1,500 a year for 10 years guaranteeing a 10% rise.” When we began to discuss why he kept funding something he didn’t believe in, it turned out to have to do with legislators not even wanting to know the cost-benefit.
Posted September 25, 2009, 12:50pm
I don’t want to take us away from the discussion on technology because I feel like this has been a missing element in our discussion thus far, but I want to address Steve’s question about the extent to which we’re inhibited by government funding, and Linda’s point about the need for continuous change.
I am not that familiar with state and local spending, and I’m curious to know if the funding that programs generate through revenue from delivering products and services is treated differently than tax revenue. If all, or at least a portion of, the revenue generated from delivery were set aside for innovation in the revenue generating program, we could overcome 2 barriers: 1) we would reduce reliance on government funding; and 2) programs would be recursively results- and innovation-driven (i.e., by continuing to drive results and thus receiving revenue, they could continue to innovate, and by innovating they’re able to drive results). This model relies on results being related to revenue, so in some cases an influx of appropriated funding may also be necessary.
I recently made a career change to a federal revolving fund program that provides HR consulting to other government agencies. I work for the federal government, but my organization does not receive a single dollar of directly appropriated funding. We receive no special mandates or government privileges, but operating within the system provides us with a unique perspective and competitive advantage. The revenue we generate is ours to spend how we please (with some minor government controls), and we have been successful since changing to this revolving fund model in 2005. We will be leading some of the president’s federal talent management initiatives, and I’m convinced, you will finally see improvements in government talent management. (It should be a solid test of the model’s scalability.)
The organization must innovate and take risks, for if we don’t, we are not able to compete with our private sector competitors. If we can’t compete, we can’t survive. This business imperative to succeed certainly drives innovation and results.
Posted September 25, 2009, 12:59pm
Re: role of intermediator, we can better leverage the network to accelerate social change (technology driven or otherwise, per Paula’s point), but there will still be a coordination problem. Many social entrepreneurs who are focused on similar outcomes have big plans to scale up, but, with limited real-time information on what others are doing or who’s doing what best—particularly when things are moving so fast—we’re seeing duplicative efforts and lost opportunities for alignment, synergy, and best practice sharing. So on Linda’s suggestion, I’m not sure if it’s enough to agree on the outcomes. I think we also need a clear picture of the broader ecosystem and some coordination among efforts. But this raises the question: How can we increase coordination without adding bureaucracy?
Posted September 25, 2009, 1:00pm
Starting at scale (sort of)—HHS connect. Our technology initiative may be a good example of trying to have a smart strategy to achieve change at scale when slowly growing is not an option. Shared governance by stake holders; investing in projects of common interest; getting some quick wins for customers, providers, front line workers. This one costs—not viral.
Procurement reform. Here's another that will have to be done at scale from the start—shared human service contracts across agencies. I would pick up on the it's-time-has-come theme. Both public agencies and non-profits agree on wastefulness of current RFP/contract process. Fiscal crisis has created impetus for change. We can't tolerate the waste in this environment. This ties nicely to contracting for outcomes too.
Posted September 25, 2009, 1:10pm
Re: Maurice’s point, cost-benefit analyses aren’t always that easy, particularly in the social sector. It can be tough to measure secondary impacts such as halo effects or externalities. For example, in the classroom it can be relatively easy to drive up test scores if that is all you care about and measure and if you are truly indifferent to anything else that results from achieving that outcome. But a single-minded focus on that one outcome can also lead to unintended consequences such as the classic case of the student losing ground on critical thinking/problem-solving skills or getting a short shrift in other un-tested subject matters; or, more subtly, developing a lifelong distaste for school. Maurice’s job training example could be more clear-cut; but often it’s harder than just cost/benefit—we have to be careful about viewing that as the silver bullet.
Posted September 25, 2009, 1:25pm
Taking this back to Steve’s question re: reliance on government/funding, while there are many opportunities to accelerate social change that can be done on the cheap (as others have pointed out), I don’t think the solution is to work around government altogether. Maybe we also need to focus on getting more talent into government roles who are visionary, relentless, and capable of driving change across systems, including changing systems themselves. Here in NYC, we have seen what can happen when big-thinking leaders step into traditional ‘bureaucratic’ roles, and Linda’s post re: HHS reminds me of that. People must work within systems, but systems are ultimately created by people.
Posted September 25, 2009, 1:31pm
Procurement reform is probably more about people reform. For the most part, it’s not the rules and regulations that restrict procurement reform. To my knowledge, there is no regulation restricting the use of shared contracts across agencies. The processes to comply with a complex set of rules were designed, and are now followed, by people with a process focus, not a results focus. It’s the lack of forward thinking, the fear-industry-exploiting small-scale corruption, negative accountability, etc. that lead to this focus.
There is hope. The federal government’s focus on hiring more business savvy people to do procurement, and the recent “professionalizing” of the position (i.e., no longer admins) has helped some, but the old mindset (often in management positions) is restricting these people. Right now, I’m seeing progress occur one retirement at a time. We just need to replenish these positions with business-savvy entrepreneurs. Attack the government from within.
Posted September 25, 2009, 1:33pm
Brava Paula....You could not have said it more clearly.
Posted September 25, 2009, 1:45pm
No one can deny that leadership matters and that "heroic" figures (I think that was the term used earlier) make a difference. But I think a change strategy that relies exclusively on talented people at the top of an institutional hierarchy risks ignoring the power of what Michael Lipsky called street-level bureaucrats—at the end of day, the people on the frontlines of any system, be they cops, judges, teachers, or sanitation workers, wield enormous discretion. How do we make policymakers, the press, and the public comfortable with this truth—and the reality that now and then this discretion will result in bad and even tragic decisions? And how do we get to a place where trying new things doesn't take heroism or courage but is just a regular part of the job?
Posted September 25, 2009, 1:59pm
Perhaps there is potential for technology and/or network feedback loops to be used to close the intermediary/“arbiter of value”- gap and better align government funding/procurement decisions with “consumer” needs and experiences.
Could this enable both the “political cover” and the real-time feedback loops necessary for resources to flow in a more market-based way to programs that deliver outcomes at the point of impact while encouraging innovators to work through, and not outside, the system?
Posted September 25, 2009, 2:00pm
Greg, the leaders at the top can help make that change strategy happen and might be what it takes to fully capitalize on government and what it can offer. :)
Posted September 25, 2009, 2:05pm
I think we need to separate the challenges of scaling up a community-based programmatic initiative across other communities from the issues around creating large-scale public sector programs based on one or more local experiments.
Let me mention two issues involving the latter. First, NGO initiatives that rely on charismatic leadership are hard for government to internalize for reasons we have discussed—the sheer scale of large urban governments precludes them having a human capital pool that is far off a normal distribution of quality. Second, experiments reliant on particularly localized conditions are hard to replicate in a bureaucratic organizational structure (which is what government is) that demands—and is demanded to demonstrate—procedural regularity. This means that when we are ready to advance the scaling up of a pilot, or even a set of individual initiatives, into a large-scale governmental program that can really create significant change, we may need to modify its design to reflect these constraints. A few charter schools may have some great successes, but unless their lessons are used thoughtfully, they won't help large school system administrators much. We need "translators" who are open to learning from these efforts (and empowered by their political leadership) but are still skilled enough in large-scale public organization management to move big systems. We need to find those translators who exist in the big systems, educate them about what's out there that's proven effective, use philanthropy to leverage support from their political leadership (mayors and governors will do a lot for relatively few free dollars), and then connect them with each to share how to make the translation from innovation in one sector to scaled change in another.
Posted September 25, 2009, 2:33pm
I am not sure that creating large-scale public sector programs (figuring out how to translate an intervention that worked in a couple of sites and creating a large-scale public organization to replicate it) is what will drive the most change today. Innovations comes so fast that the models themselves have often transformed by the time their scientific study is complete, and then that out-of-date approach is further diluted by simplifying it for replication. Learning has to happen fast. I would argue that what we need are organizations that can engage with public systems to help the systems get better results, while constantly learning and innovating.
Posted September 25, 2009, 2:39pm
I strongly support Jason's comment on procurement reform being more about reforming people—this is certainly true at the state and local level. I don't know that "business savvy" describes what I believe the core personality trait is, however. To me, the ideal procurement professional is one who is, at their core, a problem solver. Someone who knows how to get to "yes.” When we become trusted business advisors to our clients in government and business, we will be engaged early as part of the teams working on these complex issues.
There is always a way to contract for any legitimate need in government; our role should be to find the best right way and make it happen.
Posted September 25, 2009, 3:00pm
On changing government practices, I find the best collaborations require trust. “Gotcha” reports, court-imposed corrective actions, externalized reform outside the mainstream organizations, etc. build resentment and don't foster the kind of embrace you want agencies to give to the change.
Foundations can play a great role in finding the receptive government leaders who can work with innovators in and out of government to spread good models. Good Shepherd Services's alternative high school model for disconnected youth got scaled-up citywide in NYC via strong leader (Joel Klein), bringing in the innovator (Joellen Lynch) and getting foundation start-up assistance (from the Gates Foundation). And they have beautiful data.
Posted September 25, 2009, 3:00pm
Unfortunately, our conversation must come to a close here. Thank you to all those who contributed and to all those who followed our conversation. Not surprisingly, after turning over the soil a bit, we found it to be rich with tensions and challenges, but with many ideas than can bear fruit. As Jason wrote, “There is hope.”
I’d like to add to yesterday’s list some of the ideas proposed today for overcoming the barriers to scale and system change. Note that most of these strategies could be applicable to funders, providers and advocates alike from across all sectors:
- Generative networks. Understand the critical combination of clarity of problem, people’s emotional connection to it, opportunity for people to get involved, support networks, and activating or persuasive leadership.
- Scaling Infrastructure. Improve evaluation and dissemination in social services; provide more training to prepare for growing ideas.
- Disintermediation.Use technology to 1) connect consumers directly to solutions, and 2) gather and analyze information on consumers’ needs and preferences (lessons learned: shared governance, common interest, quick wins).
- Coordination. Look across the system—ideally, with more real-time information on what others are doing or who’s doing what best.
- “Translators.” Liaison between outside innovation and large-scale institutions; connect the actors; accelerate and institutionalize learning and accelerate scaling change.
Fortunately, we will be able to continue the conversation. I look forward to the next meeting of our Executive Session in January. Members will follow up on the promising ideas and ways forward we have also identified over the past three days.
Finally, many thanks to Common Good and NewTalk for all their hard work in allowing this discussion to be so productive.