The Ash Center was established in 2003 as the Ash Institute to address critical issues of governance and make governments more effective and responsive. Its history begins with three great visionaries: Susan Berresford, former president of the Ford Foundation, and Roy and Lila Ash.  

The Ash Center’s origins can be found in a 1985 grant from the Ford Foundation to Harvard Kennedy School establishing the Innovations in American Government Awards, which remain today an integral part of our Innovations in Government Program.

In 2001, the Ford Foundation announced a $50 million endowment gift to Harvard Kennedy School to permanently support activities focused on innovation and best practice. As the largest single donation HKS has ever received and the largest single endowment ever made by the Ford Foundation at that time, the grant heralded the success of the Innovations in American Government Awards program. To counter declining faith in government, Ford Foundation President Susan Berresford noted that the program was necessary to spotlight, celebrate, and replicate the numerous innovative government programs. “Creative solutions for public problems abound in government at all levels,” said Berresford. “That has been amply demonstrated by the Innovations Awards in the United States and is increasingly apparent in other societies around the world.”

In 2003, an extraordinary gift from two extraordinary people allowed HKS to augment the Innovations in Government Program by underscoring the connections between innovation and democratic governance. The benefactors, Roy and Lila Ash, dedicated their lives to serving the public good in both business and government, as well as through extensive volunteer and philanthropic endeavors.

Roy Ash was a cabinet member in two US government administrations who was best known as the founder of the modern Office of Management and Budget. He argued that while considerable scholarly attention was being applied to the questions of governance in the government, most of that work related to specific public policy and current programmatic issues. Roy called for an application of concentrated scholarly attention to the very nature of democracy, and with his wife, Lila, provided a generous endowment to establish the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation. “We have to consider the concept of democracy fragile and in need of real and constant hands-on care,” said Roy Ash. “The purpose of the Institute [now Ash Center] is to encourage thoughtful and focused attention to the nature, principles, functioning, and continued innovation and adaptations essential to a living and effective democracy.”

In 2008, under the leadership of Ash Center Director Anthony Saich, Asia Programs (now Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia) joined the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation. The expanded Ash Institute—now called the Ash Center—leveraged the strengths of both organizations in the areas of faculty research, executive education, and student support.

Also in 2008, Harvard Kennedy School announced an ambitious new initiative linking innovative governance to the world’s major social challenges. Under the new plan, the Ash Center realigned its mission to focus on the study, teaching, and dissemination of solutions to real-world problems facing democratic governance. “Under this new initiative, the Kennedy School will deploy the considerable resources of the Ash Center to learning and teaching how processes of governance can be adapted to solve key social problems both in ‘mature’ democracies and in societies undergoing democratic transitions,” said David T. Ellwood, then-dean of Harvard Kennedy School.

In 2010, the permanently endowed Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia was established as part of the Ash Center to bring together academics and practitioners from around the world to enhance research, teaching, and training on public policy and governance issues of critical importance in Asia. The Institute, a newly-created Harvard Kennedy School Indonesia Program, and the Vietnam Program were housed within the Ash Center, later joined by the Singapore and Myanmar Programs.

In 2016, Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School announced a collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies to create flagship Executive Education experiences and tailored supports focused on city leadership and city management. With a generous gift of $32 million, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative was created and housed at the Ash Center to advance education about leadership and management in cities around the world.

In 2019, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development joined the Center. The Project was founded in 1987 and works to understand and foster the conditions under which sustained, self-determined social and economic development is achieved among the US American Indian nations and Indigenous communities worldwide.