It is not hard to conclude, after nearly a decade in the editor's chair here, that change is difficult to achieve in the federal bureaucracy. There's so much inertia, and it's such a struggle to innovate in programs that serve national constituencies, and Congress is so much in the picture that life goes on with improvements occurring mostly at the margins. So it's refreshing now and again to be reminded that lower levels of government can be more agile in their pursuit of change. That lesson was taught anew last month at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in the course of presentations by 25 finalists competing in the Ford Foundation's Innovations in American Government awards program. Seven of the finalists were from federal agencies, and their achievements, while substantial, tend to be administrative or internal reforms. Those innovations are not as easy to appreciate for their service to citizens as the ones at the state and local level, where government is closer to the people. To be sure, it is important to have more efficient procurement at the Federal Aviation Administration, to devise more effective ways for the Labor Department to eradicate sweatshops, to improve student loan processing at the Education Department, and to boost services to exporters at the Commerce Department. And HUD's neighborhood-based mapping and consolidated grant software does make it easier for urban activists to be involved in community planning. On page 48, you'll find an article describing the federal finalists' innovations. But the state and local innovations are sometimes more compelling, since they can more readily involve people directly in solutions to their communities' challenges. In Florida, for example, the simple idea of focusing environmental preservation efforts on individual ecosystems has brought community groups and regulatory agencies together in cooperation, not confrontation. Also in Florida, thousands of kids who had no health insurance-and whose families aren't eligible for Medicaid-now are insured because someone had the good idea of using enrollment in public schools as a qualification for group insurance at reasonable rates. In Illinois, a vigorous marketing and enrollment program has made the state a leader in diminishing the nationwide shortage of organ donors. In Ohio, juvenile justice innovators have given judges new tools to punish youthful offenders without incarcerating them in overcrowded and expensive prisons. Riverside County in California has demonstrated that local officials' focused determination can place welfare recipients in low-wage jobs, the first rung on the ladder to success. In New York City, a computer-based information system has allowed the police department to analyze patterns of crime and to coordinate resources in the neighborhoods that need the most help. The crime rate is down 37 percent since 1994, reported police chief Louis Anemone, and "so we see increasing public trust, not only in the NYPD but also in other aspects of city government such as the visiting nurse program, whose nurses are more confident that they can deliver their services safely." Such innovation and improved performance in solving problems close to home should give us hope that the sagging reputation of the public sector is not beyond repair.
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