Mar
30
2010

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Guest blogger Stephen Goldsmith is former mayor of Indianapolis, chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service under presidents Bush and Obama, and Daniel Paul Professor of Government at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is author of the new book The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good.

Cities have traditionally served as centers of entrepreneurial activity—places where citizens create and find financial, civic and social opportunity. Now, as the tide has turned for so many families—both those living in communities of entrenched poverty and those who find themselves slipping from the middle class into a straining safety net—a new group of social entrepreneurs is straining for the room and resources to innovate and grow.

The current economy has exposed the limitations on traditional government and nonprofit approaches to achieving social progress for all, but this is a problem long in the making. Since those in need of services rarely have choices, no marketplace is demanding innovation and responsiveness. Simultaneously, the professionalization of social services has disempowered clients/citizens from actively participating in solving their own problems and those of their families and neighborhoods. In addition, whether government funders accept a new idea is usually what determines growth and scale in social services. The result is an entrenched system comprised of politically connected incumbent providers that is resistant to change and leaves few resources available for innovation.

At Harvard Kennedy School, we have been studying governmental innovators and social entrepreneurs with the hopes of discovering new approaches to catalyzing and growing innovations that promise transformative social progress. From Teach for America and City Year to less known efforts like Family Independence Initiative and Acelero Learning, a new set of entrepreneurs is challenging stagnant assumptions in how we tackle social ills. However what we find is that even successful social innovators face the constraints of relatively closed social systems.

To rethink and rebuild the way we deal with social problems, our public and civic institutions must engage citizens as catalysts for social change—whether as client, community member, or entrepreneur. We also need to identify and leverage the most effective innovations for unlocking latent citizen potential for mobilizing around issues that matter most to them.

In our new book The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good, we highlight a number of tools for amplifying the role of citizens in solving public problems. Each of these tools presents an important opportunity for digital media to help build citizens’ capacity for self-organization and for community problem-solving and to help grow the most exceptional providers.

The exciting ways that we found these tools being used include the following:

Mobilize citizens to create the public demand and political capital necessary for innovation and reform. Increasingly, social media tools allow individuals to mobilize their fellow citizens in a way that grabs the attention of government and service elites. Imagine citizens virtually marching on city hall. We saw this when Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Rose asked their two million Twitter followers to demand a response from elected officials about ending malaria.

Increase client feedback mechanisms in local social service delivery. Because a third party and not the client pays for social services, citizens have little voice or choice in what services they receive. In effect, there is no market discipline if customers can’t “vote with their feet” if a provider does not perform. Efforts are in the early stages to use digital media to secure this type of feedback, similar to ratemyprofessors.com. One of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s many innovations in New York is piloting a Zagat-like guide for local job training programs.

Devolve access to information from “experts” to citizens. Washington D.C. designed its Data Feeds program to increase civic participation, government accountability, and transparency. Now being widely replicated, it was the first initiative in the country to make all current government operational data available online and invite citizens to develop new applications for using the data.

Create pathways and higher expectations for individual responsibility for community problem solving. Steven Clift’s e-democracy.org has fifteen years of experience engaging the public online. Because most online efforts fail owing to lack of participation, e - democracy.org invests heavily in outreach and recruitment. Clift intentionally first engages people on their close - to - home interests in neighborhood-based “Issues Forums,” the most successful of which daily engages 10 percent of all residents in one Minneapolis neighborhood.

Develop new volunteer and donor goodwill pipelines. Large numbers of people interested in volunteer service fail to link up with fellow citizens in need because the pipelines that should connect them are either broken or missing. New platforms are identifying unmet needs, or untapped potential, and uniting volunteer and donor energy with meaningful and productive activities. Examples include matching websites like AllforGood, ModestNeeds and In2Books, and apps and platforms like The Extraordinaries to enable micro-volunteering and Causes to tap social networks. A small, inexpensive Facebook widget alone produced pledges from fifteen thousand organizations that tens of thousands of individuals would participate in service projects over the Martin Luther King and Inaugural weekends in 2009.

Civic leaders and entrepreneurs often hail from government or the private non-profit and philanthropic sectors; they can just as easily be students or other compassionate individuals. They are equally as likely to be providing new technologies and program models as they are to be laying the groundwork for more social innovation and change in their communities. Their approaches can include opening the door to innovation in our traditional, incumbent social service delivery systems or creating new pipelines for volunteer and donor goodwill and for civic activism.

Most important to social progress is trust in citizens. We must replace patronizing systems that assume those seeking assistance will always be in need–and instead give citizens choices and hold them to high expectations.

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