San Francisco, New York Named Winners of Harvard's 2015 Innovation in American Government Award

September 17, 2015

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University announced today the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Five Keys Charter School as the winner of the 2015 Innovation in American Government Award. Participatory Budgeting in New York City from the New York City Council’s office was also announced the winner of the Roy and Lila Ash Innovation Award for Public Engagement in Government. Both winners will receive their $100,000 award, aimed at replication and dissemination of their innovations, at ceremonies in their home cities over the next month.

Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship and Acting Dean of the Kennedy School said, “the winners have demonstrated that the spirit of innovation is alive and well in our great cities. This year’s winners should serve as models for how municipal governments can successfully solve some of our most intractable social and political problems today.”

Five Keys Charter School, San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

Opened in 2003, the Five Keys Charter School (FKCS) was created to address the rampant problem of criminal recidivism in California, with almost 70 percent of inmates returning to jail or prison over a 10-year period — the second highest rate in the country. With the link between recidivism and education well studied, and half of inmates in the San Francisco prison system lacking a high school diploma, the Sheriff’s Department worked to obtain a charter for its own school — one that focused on the unique needs of the incarcerated.

The Five Keys Charter School did more than just provide inmates with a basic education — it changed the culture of the jails by creating a holistic space for learning, turning prisoners into students and deputies and prison staff into teachers focused on the common mission of learning, developing life skills, and rehabilitation. As the program expanded, it became clear that if the long-term goal was graduating their students, the school would need to expand beyond the walls of the jail and into the community, where former inmates could continue their in a supportive environment.

“One of the most persistent challenges government faces today is providing basic services like education to marginalized groups,” said Anthony Saich, the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School and Director of the Ash Center. “For inmates who enter our penal system lacking even the most basic life skills, reform is an impossible dream without intervention.  The Five Keys Charter School program is commendable for not only attempting to address a problem that many others are content to ignore, but for making the effort to adapt to the needs of their students and meeting them on their level, creating a ground-up solution to a top-down problem.”

Today, under the leadership of Executive Director Steve Good and Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, Five Keys Charter School is fully accredited and is teaching over 1,300 every day and 8,000 students annually at over 25 sites, including sites specifically for youth at risk of incarceration. Daily programming includes literacy and English courses, vocational programs, special education, high school and GED completion, and college dual-enrollment. FKCS graduates have a recidivism rate nearly 30 percent lower than that of their fellow prisoners, and their current year high school exam-passing rate is 82 percent for math and 83 percent for English language arts. The program has been replicated in Los Angeles, and now operates in three jails and five community sites in the city.

“On behalf of the San Francisco Sheriff's Department and our Five Keys Charter High School, it is with deep gratitude and immense pride that we receive Harvard University's Innovation in American Government Award,” stated Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. “What we are doing in our jails, and in under-served communities, is not effortlessly issuing diplomas in redemption, but rather, recognizing that bad mistakes, poor decisions and missed opportunities, do not define the people who enter into our custody. Education can change the world, and for some, that begins – or restarts – from within our jail."

Participatory Budgeting New York City

A product of collaboration between the New York City Council, the Participatory Budgeting Project, Community Voices Heard, other community organizations, and New York City residents, Participatory Budgeting New York City (PBNYC) builds on a growing wave of participatory budgeting projects that began in Brazil in 1989. A collaborative effort since inception, PBNYC carved out a unique space as the largest and fastest-growing participatory budgeting process in the United States. PBNYC was founded in 2011 by four City Council members who saw the value in this experimental approach to democracy and engaging their constituents in what remains for the average citizen one of the most opaque and confusing aspects of governing.

A citywide Steering Committee — with representatives from residents, grassroots organizations, and community stakeholders — created the framework for PBNYC, with a mission to engage residents from communities most often left out of traditional methods of public engagement. Each PBNYC cycle lasts eight months, beginning with thousands of citizens attending over 200 neighborhood assemblies that meet citizens where they live to brainstorm spending ideas that could improve their communities. From these meetings, hundreds of participants go on to become “budget delegates” and work with their elected officials to represent their community’s spending priorities and create project proposals. The money for PBNYC projects is allocated from individual City Council member’s discretionary funds, which helps ensure that spending practices are more equitable and transparent.

"When leaders invest power in their communities, everyone wins," said Josh Lerner, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Participatory Budgeting Project. "Participatory budgeting brings new voices into civic life, and PBNYC shows that more voices lead to better decisions and stronger communities. As we bring participatory budgeting to new budgets across North America, PBNYC serves as a shining model and a laboratory of experimentation for deepening democracy."

In the most recent cycle of PBNYC, over 51,000 people voted on the projects they want to see implemented in their communities, and oversaw the spending of approximately $32 million in neighborhood improvements. The program has grown from four initial City Council districts to more than 27 in just four years, and affects four million people in the city.

“The New York City Council is proud to lead the largest participatory budgeting process in North America, a truly grassroots and democratic tool that engages New Yorkers and invests in our communities. Participatory budgeting breaks down traditional barriers to civic life – such as youth, income status, English-language proficiency and documentation status – resulting in a civic dialogue that is truly inclusive and representative of the diversity of this city. Last year, over 51,000 New Yorkers voted to allocate $32 million dollars for locally-developed capital projects across the city, and we look forward to building on that resounding success in the upcoming cycle. New York City’s participatory budgeting process is a model for empowered, community-based decision making across the country and around the world, and the City Council is proud to do its part to strengthen and innovate democracy,” said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“Too often, traditional models of civic participation only allowed for the loudest voices to be heard, and barriers to participation meant that those most in need of engagement were left out of the process,” said Stephen Goldsmith, the Daniel Paul Professor of the Practice of Government and the Director of the Ash Center’s Government Innovation Program. “The Innovations in Government award spotlights those programs that engage all citizens, particularly those from overlooked communities, and that serve as effective models of participatory democracy for other communities throughout the United States.” 

About the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
The Roy and Lila Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation advances excellence and innovation in governance and public policy through research, education, and public discussion. Three major programs support our mission: the Program on Democratic Governance; the Innovations in Government Program; and the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia. For more information, visit


For more information contact:

Daniel Harsha
Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation

Kenya Briggs
Public Information Officer for Sheriff’s Department, City and County of San Francisco
(415) 554-7247 (office)
New York City Council
212-788-7116 (office)
David Beasley
Communications Director, Participatory Budgeting Project
347-652-1478 (office)
718-578-1501 (cell)