As many of you know, one of my main focuses at the moment is on enabling government to become more actively engaged with on-the-ground, community-based solutions. So from time to time on this blog I plan to highlight what I call public innovators – those who work at the city, state or federal levels of government and exemplify an ‘invest in what works’ state of mind.
I recently read Tom Friedman’s op ed piece entitled “The New Untouchables,” which inspired me to start off with Michelle Rhee, the Chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools. Before I tell you a bit about why I think Rhee is a public innovator herself, let me provide some general principles that a public innovator embodies and that I think are essential to advancing social innovation:
The public innovator:
- Encourages social innovation: Public innovators can encourage social innovation and help spur the testing of promising new approaches to solving social problems.
- Fosters a supportive policy environment: The very nature of innovation means that social entrepreneurs will be heading into new territory, and they often encounter unexpected barriers along the way. Public innovators can lift such barriers. In addition, merely by lending credibility and drawing attention to a given issue or initiatives, they can help proven models gather momentum.
- Rewards initiatives for exceptional performance: Access to reliable sources of funding is essential to the growth and sustainability of solutions that work. By tying decisions about funding and purchasing to performance, government can help ensure that solutions that work will sustain and grow their impact.
- Spreads successful approaches: Expanding the reach of a proven solution is often critical if the solution is to become truly transformative. Yet acquiring the recognition, support for spreading, or funding to scale a successful initiative is notoriously difficult. Government can play a crucial role in expanding the reach of solutions that work by seeking out what works and enabling solutions to spread.
- Produces knowledge to understand performance: Government already serves as a critical source of data and standards. Public innovators can play a critical role in ensuring that knowledge is produced, more clear standards are set, and data is easily accessible.
- Catalyzes public-private partnerships across sectors: Public leaders who leverage the many resources available across all sectors – and succeed in bringing various stakeholders to the table in order to advance effective solutions – can have an impact much greater than any solution focused solely on one institution or sector.
A public innovator must be able to work towards these principles in the face of tremendous obstacles, including but not limited to entrenched bureaucracy, partisanship, systems that are stuck in old, ineffective ways of approaching issues, term limits, and more.
You may be asking, why is it that I keep talking about government on this blog? It’s because I am convinced it is the only path to making systemic change on the many social issues we must address. As I noted in my remarks at the Social Enterprise Summit this year, it’s the better mousetrap, and we need to capitalize on it before the opportunity passes us by.
To build off that point, let’s turn back to Rhee. As chancellor of D.C. public schools, she has authority over 144 schools serving 46,000 students; her decisions immediately affect students and the city on a scale almost unheard of in the nonprofit sector. In addition, her approaches can have a spread effect because bold actions, for which she is well known, attract media attention, and other superintendents can learn from and model their decisions after hers.
OK – so what has she done to improve the schools in our nation’s capital?
I saw Rhee speak earlier this year at the Gathering of Leaders, and I recall thinking that she is hitting the mark on the attributes of a public innovator. For starters, she has consistently sought the highest performing nonprofits in D.C. and partnered with them to bring their approaches to under-performing schools [(4) Scale successful approaches and (6) Catalyze public-private partnerships]. She is leading the charge on one of the most ambitious set of contracts ever for teacher unions to try to ensure that high-performing teachers are rewarded [(2) Foster a supportive policy environment and (3) Reward exceptional performance]. She has also been a huge proponent of charter schools [(1) Encourage social innovation], and she is a zealot about using and reporting on data [(5) Produce knowledge to understand performance].
Friedman points out in his op ed that, thanks to the changing nature of our economy, schools have the “doubly hard task” of “not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity” – so someone in Rhee’s position needs to go beyond just getting students’ basic academic skills up to par. As Friedman notes, “We’re not going back to the good old days without fixing our schools as well as our banks.” Michelle Rhee understands that the status quo, when proven ineffective, needs to be shown the door, and that tough and unpopular decisions must be made in the face of inertia and adversity. She is a true public innovator.
Photo by The National Academy of Sciences via flickr
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