Social innovation is itself an innovation. It is now being formalized in selected universities, consultancies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This BLOG article collects and combines edited versions of several reviews and articles about the pioneering book The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good. The main author, Stephen Goldsmith is Professor of Government and Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Click below for more about this ground-breaking book.
“Social innovation,” as Goldsmith uses the term, simply refers to how social service providers (nonprofit and governmental) can solve social problems by providing clients (the poor, for instance) with positive incentives and treating them as active agents in the process. The traditional, top-down, service-delivery model has created “entrenched underperforming social safety net systems of providers, government and philanthropic funders, advocates, and interest groups,” Goldsmith writes. Thus, he says, we need “civic entrepreneurs” to shift the power dynamic and make real change possible on an individual and community level. “Transformation occurs as these social risk-takers help change residents from passive recipients of government services to productive, tax-paying members of society,” he adds.
Stephen Goldsmith is the right man to write this book. He served two terms as Mayor of Indianapolis, advised President George W. Bush on faith-based and nonprofit issues, and chaired the Corporation for National and Community Service under Presidents Bush and Obama. Shortly after he published this volume, he was appointed by Michael Bloomberg to serve as Deputy Mayor of Operations for New York City—overseeing many of Gotham’s biggest service agencies. …
When nonprofits seek the support (both financial and moral) of citizens, they are in a stronger position to tackle social problems. One of the most enlightening chapters of The Power of Social Innovation is about “Building a Public”—how civic entrepreneurs build a movement by creating citizen demand for change. “Civic progress requires that those who advocate for new interventions build a community of engaged citizens to demand change in social-political systems,” Goldsmith writes. …
One reason social innovators need to invest in building a public is that choice—real, informed choice—requires a public aware of its needs and its options. Goldsmith strongly supports client choice, whether that client is a homeless man or a public school student. He makes a convincing case, based on his and others’ experience, that when clients are trusted with responsibility, offered options to choose where to get help, and allowed to advocate for what is in the best interests of their communities, they achieve “the transformative power of personal responsibility, which can lead to a cultural shift toward higher expectations among individuals and within a community.” …
Goldsmith emphasizes that social innovation requires a high tolerance for failure and a low tolerance for perpetuating those failures. “Governments must be pushed to allow more open competition—even if it results in failure—as long as poorly performing entities can be closed and their funds repurposed,” he writes. …
The Power of Social Innovation confirms what you may already have suspected about the barriers that governments and entrenched nonprofits throw up against effective programs. By staking out a middle ground on a politically charged topic, Goldsmith offers practitioners, policymakers, and donors worthy ideas about the potential of private and neighborhood initiatives to help governments find better solutions to social problems.
Disruptive innovation” has a nice ring to it, and it’s essentially what Stephen Goldsmith’s new book, The Power of Social Innovation is about. The book tries to extract a wide variety of lessons about innovation and innovators by looking at a broad swath of disrupters who’ve taken on the social services and educational status quo from coast to coast.
For those who don’t know him, Goldsmith is the former mayor of Indianapolis, where he made a name for himself implementing a system of competitive contracting that opened city work up to bid by both city employees and private contractors. He then moved to academia, to teach at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he also helped oversee the Innovations in American Government program. He just recently accepted a job with New York City, as deputy mayor for operations.
The book makes the following TEN points worth highlighting.
- The value of re-framing mission. Goldsmith talks about “catalytic” mechanisms of change. That is, some ingredient that can be tossed into an existing system that will shake things up. For example, in the homelessness world, programs with the most potential don’t have a mission to find homeless people permanent housing and jobs, rather their mission is to try to prevent homelessness in the first place.
- Busting the “iron triangle.” One of the most powerful points Goldsmith makes is how hard it is to break the relationships between politicians, bureaucrats and existing service providers in order to allow fresh new players into the system. The basic problem is that government and bureaucracies still aren’t very good at sifting through strong performers versus weak ones (or helping weak ones get better), and aren’t very interested in taking a risk on new providers with new ideas.
- The scourge of experts. One reinforcing element of the “iron triangle” is that in many cases, certain areas of human services have been taken over by credentialing and standards-setting entities that have set up iron-clad requirements and standards for how certain services will be delivered and by whom. Program, legislative, and regulatory professionals can inadvertently limit civic entrepreneurship by asserting technical definition of ‘the right approach, which creates an environment where “credentials or prescribed approaches” matter more than results.
- The importance of including community and clients. The corollary to “the scourge of experts,” Goldsmith points out, is something that really ought to be a matter of industry faith by now: We need to be including community and clients in discussions about what it is they need, rather than merely handing them the menu (which is all part and parcel of the continuing shift to a more “strengths-based” approach to human services).
- The power of partnerships. In way too many instances, providers still operate in a competitive environment, looking to score contracts at the expense of other providers. This hasn’t been a promising formula for long-range progress. But getting a wide variety of the right actors to start working together to tackle things like joblessness and unacceptably high student dropout rates has.
- The power of performance measures. Fortunately, this isn’t a maxim that really has to be argued much anymore in the social services world, although getting systems to adopt results-based thinking continues to be a challenge. In that regard, Goldsmith’s basic advice, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is right on. The perfect measure or measures will never exist. The point is, get as close as you can and start tracking.
- Busting silos. This one is an oldy but moldy, too, but bears repeating. Services still operate in way too isolated a fashion. Again, it’s not something that really has to be argued any longer — no credible person actually still believes that health, education, legal and social services all ought to all be running along separate tracks, never connecting up. Connecting them, on the other hand, remains a challenge; we’re an organizationally territorial species.
- A new way of investing. In the book, Goldsmith introduces a variety of actors who have taken a whole new approach to providing funding, either through cash to help clients, or cash to those service providers who come in with fresh ideas for addressing social problems. This is in happy contrast to the old-fashioned foundation standard: Throw money at a place for three years and then move on to the next new thing.
- New media, new influence. We’re not going to tweet our way to social health, but Goldsmith does offer a host of examples where the Internet — in all its glorious machinations — has been used to quickly and broadly communicate, while making key connections in ways that have led to significant progress on a human services front.
- Have faith. Government still doesn’t use faith-based institutions to the full extent that they should, Goldsmith argues. While this is an understandable bias given politics as it’s practiced these days, Goldsmith does make a solid case that there are some very energetic and creative churches out there doing very good, smart work, and governments should inventory that work and sign the appropriate churches up.
These are all important points to continue emphasizing, and again, there’s real value in the job that Goldsmith has done in pulling them all together in the book. But the implicit (and in some places, explicit) point that Goldsmith makes throughout the book — and the one that probably matters the most — is that at the end of the day this is about people; restless, energetic, smart people who are behind all the change and progress outlined in The Power of Social Innovation.
Systems matter, rules matter, culture and mores matter and history matters. That’s all true. But what really matters is that there are lots of wonderful people out there who aren’t interested in going with the ineffective flow. They are the “disruptive innovators,” and they deserve support and recognition.
Government dominates the service sector, sometimes monopolizing the delivery system and other times functioning as a monopsonist, acting as the sole purchaser. A person in need of services rarely has any choice about where they get help, and the established government and nonprofit providers fight furiously to preserve their incumbency.
Unsurprisingly change occurs slowly in this area. Even when new techniques for delivering social services work, they rarely scale up quickly – if at all. That’s because a political economy has replaced a market economy, and the incentives are very different. The result is ineffective spending on education, job readiness, and similar services that are supposed to benefit the young and poor. Despite the resources expended for their benefit, the poor still lack market power and still lack the sort of choices that drive innovation. …
Because the public sector dominates social services, it exhibits the sort of institutional inertia inherent in government action. But the poor performance of our public institutions is nearly always blamed on insufficient funding, rather than the failure of the program to actually meet the public need. …
So, what’s the alternative approach? How can we induce innovation and new delivery systems that can right the ship in time to avoid a collision, not only with the iceberg of public indebtedness, but in time to prevent another generation being lost to social dysfunction and intergenerational dependence? The answer is to choose policies that move young people from being passive consumers of public services into tax-paying, productive members of society.
Social spending, including education and social services must be engineered to create new wealth and net new taxpayers. Innovation in education and social service areas requires both demand and supply tools. This means giving users of services – including students – more choices so they can drive demand. But it also requires that federal, state and local government force open the door so that a new set of social entrepreneurs can demonstrate and scale promising approaches. …
Change efforts aren’t without their critics since progress is often uneven. Defenders of the status quo and others often insist on waiting long periods for proof of concept, but this is counterproductive. Too often we have seen civic entrepreneurs whose new ideas, passion, and organizational ability swept away hopelessness and replaced it with opportunity. In so doing, they prove that energetic and creative citizens can produce truly important results. But there will be bumps in the road. Just as some new products will fail in the market – think the Edsel or New Coke – without experimentation, the stagnation of existing but ineffective institutions guarantees failure of a different sort.
We need to force innovation into social and educational delivery systems. Innovation means more than just new or larger programs. That can take the form of innovative new policies, technologies that makes existing systems work better, or the introduction of new providers and the competitive dynamic of choice that drives innovation in the marketplace.
Gigi Georges is a Managing Director of the Glover Park Group, specializing in strategic communications, policy advocacy, and planning for business, industries and nonprofits. In this interview, she responds to questions about social innovation and social change.
You are one of the co-authors of a recent book on social innovation. First of all, how do you define “social innovation”?
We saw first-hand and through interviews with more than 100 leading innovators that effective social innovation happens when individuals reach across sectors—public, private and nonprofit—to develop creative, results-based solutions that lead to bold and transformative change. We also saw how social innovation can take hold in large scale and meaningful ways when it gives citizens real choices and provides a compelling alternative to the dominant government approach to existing social service delivery systems.
What do YOU consider to be the most pervasive social problems of our generation?
In the Power of Social Innovation, we hope to contribute to this effort in a small way by shining a light on the many ways innovation can be a force for effective change. In education, for example, we see everything from Wireless Generation’s use of handheld technology to empower teachers to better manage and track student assessments, interpret data, and apply their findings to better instruction to Mayor Bloomberg’s top to bottom reforms in New York City, where, among other things, he has infused the school system with catalytic talent from non-traditional areas, expanded choice through small schools and charters, and granted school leaders more authority and autonomy to innovation.
What do you consider as best practices in social innovation?
In the book, we outline a number of core “best practices” or levers that can markedly increase the performance and potential of our social efforts. Here are a few that work across the policy spectrum:
- Set aside risk capital. President Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have both partnered with private philanthropy to create innovation funds. In its own way, each fund creates the political space (as important as financial) to test and incubate or to help replicate new models that have been measured and shown to work.
- Focus on results. A new generation of funders, both private and public, is less and less impressed with the best efforts of good hearted nonprofits. Instead, they insist on results and are gaining the courage to repurpose dollars to what works. Public dissatisfaction with an underperforming status quo, and subsequent demands for change, are levers that help funders to overcome opposition from politically connected incumbent providers.
- Trust in citizens. Too many nonprofit and government “experts” assume that those seeking assistance will always be in need and have little to offer. Many of the most exciting innovations we came across give clients choices and hold them to high expectations. A great example of this is Maurice Miller’s San Francisco-based Family Independence Initiative, which empowers low-income families to use their own networks to become more economically self-sufficient.
- Support local successes. While looking outside for worthy models is helpful, more and more communities are incubating local innovation by helping grow exceptional programs already succeeding in their own neighborhoods.
- Stop social protectionism. Elected officials, particularly city councilors or state legislators, often protect existing programs, no matter how ineffective, through budget earmarks and regulatory hurdles. Bringing down these hurdles allows more innovators to access existing funding.
What about urban versus rural areas- is the agenda for social change different in New York, than in New Mexico?
Much of our focus was on cities. But I would suggest that while there may be differences in scale, environment, and the specifics of each situation, the same general issues apply, regardless of region or population density. In particular, these are: improving educational preparedness, focusing on physical and mental health, increasing access to safe and affordable housing, addressing high unemployment, and increasing access to basic services like credit and fresh produce. For all of these, the approaches may vary to reflect each community’s specific circumstances, but the same basic principles and levers for change that I discussed above apply.
What kind of criteria are you using to measure success?
A few ideas we have include: increased awareness and understanding of social innovation (its definition as well as key issues, lessons learned, and strategies) among both civic leaders and entrepreneurs; the extent to which communities incorporate these lessons into their work finding innovative ways to solve complex public problems; the number of cities that create formal policies or structures to encourage social innovation and community engagement; and the quality of social innovations incubated or recruited into a community.