Top 25 and finalists for Innovations in Government Award announced by Ash Center

May 5, 2015

Ash Center Announces Finalists, Top 25 Innovations in Government

Cambridge, Mass. – May 5, 2015 – Today the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, announced the Top 25 programs in this year’s Innovations in American Government Awards competition, including the five finalists who will compete for the $100,000 grand prize on May 20 in Cambridge. These government initiatives represent the dedicated efforts of city, state, and federal governments, and address such policy issues as economic development, environmental and community revitalization, public health, equal access to education, emergency preparedness, and health care. These programs were selected by a cohort of policy experts, researchers, and practitioners. A full list of the Top 25 programs is available here.

Those programs named as finalists will be making presentations to the National Selection Committee of the Innovations in American Government Awards, with the winner to be announced this summer. The presentations will be streamed live starting at 1:30 pm EDT on May 20 here.

“These programs represent the forefront in government innovation, and a cross-section of issues of the twenty-first century, including renewable energy, community revitalization, and public-private partnerships,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in Government program at the Ash Center. “They demonstrate that efforts to make government work better can stem not only from executive orders and statewide initiatives, but also small community programs and private citizens on social media.”

“The Ash Center is proud to recognize these programs and hopes that they will become a vital part of our ongoing efforts to create a community of innovators,” said Tony Saich, director of the Ash Center. “Each Top 25 program can become a blueprint for similar enterprises at all levels of government, inspiring leaders around the country to help improve their communities with opportunities for dialogue and replication.”

The Innovations in American Government Awards was created by the Ford Foundation in 1985 in response to widespread pessimism and distrust in government’s effectiveness. Since its inception, over 500 government innovations across all jurisdiction levels have been recognized and have collectively received more than $22 million in grants to support dissemination efforts. Such models of good governance also inform research and academic study around key policy areas both at Harvard Kennedy School and academic institutions worldwide. Past winners have served as the basis of case studies taught in more than 450 Harvard courses and over 2,250 courses worldwide.

For more information, contact:

Daniel Harsha
Associate Director for Communications, Ash Center 

About the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation advances excellence in governance and strengthens democratic institutions worldwide. Through its research, education, international programs, and government innovations awards, the Center fosters creative and effective government problem solving and serves as a catalyst for addressing many of the most pressing needs of the world’s citizens. For more information, visit

The 2015 Top 25 Innovations in American Government

Bob Janes Triage Center
Lee County, FL 

The Bob Janes Triage Center/Low Demand Shelter (Triage Center) is a multiagency collaboration that provides a voluntary pre-arrest diversion program for individuals exhibiting symptoms of behavioral health disorders and who are at risk of arrest for low-level minor offenses or future involvement with the criminal justice system. Law enforcement may divert individuals with behavioral health issues to the Triage Center for shelter, assessments, and linkages to services. The project also accepts individuals from the local hospital system who are high utilizers of acute medical or behavioral health services. Veterans who are homeless can be referred by the Veterans Administration. The ultimate goal of the project is to provide people who are homeless with a more suitable and less costly alternative to incarceration and the inappropriate utilization of emergency rooms for primary health care needs; to utilize existing resources such as residential treatment and supportive housing more efficiently; and to offer individuals the opportunity to seek help when they are motivated to do so by providing a safe place to stay while accessing services.

Clean Energy Partnership for Wastewater and Drinking Water Facilities
University of Massachusetts Lowell/US Environmental Protection Agency/Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection/Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Partnership for Wastewater and Drinking Water Facilities addresses energy use, costs, greenhouse gas emissions, and air and water quality tradeoffs in wastewater and drinking water operations, issues that do not fit into traditional regulatory programs. In response to these challenges, federal, state, and municipal governments, energy utilities, professional trade associations, and an institution of higher learning worked together to integrate existing tools and resources (e.g., energy tracking, audits, technical assistance) while also creating new opportunities (e.g., peer learning, policy changes, new funding sources). This collaboration (1) reduced energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions; (2) increased the on-site generation of renewable energy; and (3) supported a shift in the water sector’s identity from treatment/disposal to “water resource recovery” facilities that produce clean water and recover nutrients while efficiently managing and generating their own energy. What started as an experiment to gauge the potential for significant energy improvements in the water sector has been successfully used in all six New England states and 15 other states and US territories.

College Scholarship Awards Program
Department of Housing & Urban Development 

The Norwalk Housing Authority (NHA) created the Norwalk Housing Foundation (NHF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that raises money for college scholarships and other educational services for NHA families. Its mission is to help public housing residents achieve academic preparation, parity, excellence, and a college degree. All of NHF funds go to students and their families for college. Since its inception, the NHF has awarded approximately $840,000 through 318 scholarships to 167 students. As the only public housing authority in Connecticut to offer a scholarship program, the NHF encourages learning and development through a support structure embedded into the program that begins with the NHA’s other educational readiness initiatives, including early childhood through primary education programs and Learning Centers that operate throughout the community.

Development Innovation Ventures
US Agency for International Development 

Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) at USAID is an open competition that finds, tests, and scales breakthrough solutions to the world's most intractable development challenges. DIV's model begins by seeking innovative ideas from anyone, anywhere. It then tests the most promising ideas to gather evidence of their impacts and cost-effectiveness relative to traditional approaches, and helps scale those solutions that are proven successful to sustainably reach millions of people without long-term DIV support. Across its portfolio, DIV has invested in over 100 innovations in 8 sectors and 35 countries. These investments are carefully selected from the over 6,000 applications submitted to DIV since its inception, demonstrating the incredible potential of—and demand from—external actors to work with USAID in new ways. Winners range from a Ugandan accountant-turned-entrepreneur whose company converts excess crop waste to clean cooking fuel to a cutting-edge NGO in India using fingerprint technology to track, treat, and prevent the spread of tuberculosis.

Digital Stewards Red Hook WiFi
City of New York, NY 

Red Hook Initiative (RHI) is a community-based youth and community development organization in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Located across the street from the Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest public housing development, RHI’s focus is to ensure that young people and families have access to resources and opportunities that can empower them to break the cycle of poverty that has plagued Red Hook for decades. While the origins of the WiFi project date back to 2011, the project took off in 2012 when RHI used the WiFi network to propel Red Hook's recovery from Superstorm Sandy. In 2013, with support from the city of New York’s Center for Economic Opportunity Work Progress Program, RHI began to hire and train local young adults, ages 19–24, to build, maintain, and promote a free wireless network for residents of the under-resourced area, where broadband adoption rates are lower than the city average.

Five Keys Charter School
City and County of San Francisco, CA

With an unprecedented charter from the San Francisco Unified School District, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department (SFSD) launched the Five Keys Charter School (5KCS) and began running a high school for adult inmates inside the county’s jails. The school is remarkable not just because of its location and student body, but because of the project’s mission: to decrease recidivism through education. The school was modeled around a unique mission, inspired by serving a population that had previously been unsuccessful in traditional education environments: run a school that inspires inmates to become students and sheriff's deputies to foster learning. Today, FKCS is an award-winning national model, serving 8,000 students annually across California. In contrast to jails where inmates are locked in cells most of the day, and are segregated by gang affiliation and race, Five Keys students spend the day in integrated classes studying for their high school diplomas and discussing the consequences of crime. The model has reduced inmate violence, decreased recidivism, and interrupted cycles of intergenerational incarceration. Ten years later, it remains unique: no other sheriff’s department operates its own charter school.

FoodBorne Chicago
City of Chicago, IL 

On March 23, 2013, the Chicago Department of Public Health and the SmartChicago Collaborative launched the FoodBorne Chicago web application with the goal of improving food safety in Chicago. FoodBorne Chicago tracks tweets using a supervised machine-learning algorithm that identifies the keywords of “food poison” within the Chicago area. This tool allows residents to report a food poisoning incident through 311 after the program identifies tweets with possible cases of food poisoning. The team then tweets back a link to submit an online web form where residents can identify where they ate, the date and time they frequented the restaurant, their symptoms, and send it through Open311. The information is sent directly to the Department of Public Health and, if warranted, an inspection team visits the restaurant in question and then lets the resident know the status of the investigation via e-mail. The algorithm gets smarter at identifying related tweets as the team replies to residents that are suspected to have a potential case of food poisoning to report. If several complaints occur together, these clusters can be investigated to prevent further illnesses from developing.

Healthy Chinese Take-Out Initiative
City of Philadelphia, PA 

Philadelphia has the highest prevalence of hypertension among the 10 largest US cities, affecting 47 percent of African Americans and 31 percent of Hispanics. Chinese take-out restaurants are a ubiquitous part of the Philadelphia landscape and are located predominantly in low-income neighborhoods with large racial and ethnic minority populations. The Healthy Chinese Take-out Initiative is an unprecedented effort to prevent and mitigate cardiovascular disease among these minorities by decreasing the sodium content of meals served at more than 200 Chinese take-out restaurants. Established in 2012 with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this initiative is a partnership between the city's Department of Public Health, Temple University’s Center for Asian Health, the Asian Community Health Coalition, and the Greater Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association. Key components of the intervention include: 1) recruitment of independent Chinese take-out restaurants in low-income communities; 2) a formative assessment of owner/chef knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to salt use and consumption; 3) low-sodium cooking trainings led by experts; 4) distribution of low-sodium recipes, toolkits, and measuring spoons; and 5) on-site compliance checks and booster trainings. The program has demonstrated significant and sustained sodium reduction in participating restaurants as evidenced by sodium analysis conducted over 24 months. Results showed a 13–34 percent reduction in sodium content of three popular dishes, surpassing the program’s initial four-year goal of a 10–15 percent reduction in sodium.

Kindergarten to College
City and County of San Francisco

San Francisco is the first city to automatically enroll every public school kindergartner in their own college savings account, with a $50 seed deposit and incentives to start saving for college early and often. Over 18,000 students have received accounts and savings participation rates are four times the national average of savings in 529 and Coverdell accounts. The program is designed to increase college enrollment for students from low-income families, reduce the exclusion of low-income families from financial products that produce wealth, and leverage private investment in San Francisco families through matching donations. The process is automatic, universal, scalable, and does not affect families’ eligibility for public benefits.

United States House of Representatives 

Madison is an online platform for crowdsourcing legislation for consideration by the US House of Representatives. It provides citizens with a way to give direct feedback on policy documents online and gives lawmakers a powerful way to understand the needs of the people they represent and to harness the collective knowledge of their communities. Madison addresses the fact that most Americans do not have a say in the policies that affect their lives at the city, state, or federal level. Few citizens have the time or resources to track legislation, appear in person at public hearings, and prepare formal testimony — or even to know what their elected officials are working on. And, overworked and under-resourced lawmakers do not have an efficient or effective way to ensure that the policies they create best meet the needs of their communities. Madison was used to create the first two pieces of crowdsourced legislation in the history of the US Congress: the DATA Act, which was signed into law on May 9, 2014, and FISMA, the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2012, which marked the first time a member of the US Congress solicited online public input on legislation.

Medicaid Redesign Team
State of New York

The Medicaid Redesign Team (MRT) is a nationally recognized innovative effort that utilized an intensive stakeholder engagement process to reduce costs in New York’s Medicaid program while focusing on improving quality and implementing reforms. Over its first five years, MRT will save the state and federal governments a combined $34 billion. The MRT changed the political environment by bringing key stakeholders together to develop a multiyear plan for reform. While most observers predicted failure, the process succeeded in part due to strong support from the governor, and the stakeholders were able to come up with a plan to transform the program. Over 230 separate initiatives have been or are still being implemented.

Mental Health Reentry Program
State of Oklahoma 

Since 2007, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) have partnered to create a collaborative reentry process to improve the transition of incarcerated offenders with serious mental illness into appropriate community-based mental health services. ODMHSAS discharge managers are assigned to an office within the correctional facility that has special housing for intensive mental health services. The discharge managers serve as part of the ODOC institutional mental health treatment team that creates and implements the individualized treatment plans, including the reentry planning for offenders with a serious mental illness. Federal benefit planning is accomplished for eligible offenders, and the interagency collaboration has yielded a 90-percent Social Security approval rate. In-reach and aftercare services are provided by the Reentry Intensive Care Coordination Teams (RICCTs). The RICCT staff members meet with the offender at a minimum of 90 days before a projected release date and then work with the offender in the community until such time as the offender has adjusted to life following incarceration (usually up to a year post discharge). A vital component of the RICCT program is the inclusion of a Certified Peer Recovery Support Specialist on the team. These team members have firsthand, personal experience with mental illness and/or substance abuse and have been trained to offer peer support. In addition, out-stationed ODMHSAS specialists provide substance abuse treatment to those offenders in need during the reentry program. The program’s outcomes are very promising: service engagement, outpatient service utilization, and access to pharmacy services all increased and the recidivism rate for program participants decreased 41 percent from a comparison group. Collaboration between state and federal agencies in Oklahoma improves public safety and results in positive outcomes for participants.

National Boat Operations and Training Program
United States Coast Guard 

The Boat Operations and Training (BOAT) Program of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) trains local, county, tribal and state maritime responders in skills the US Coast Guard can quantify and catalog, so when a major catastrophe emerges, marine agents at all levels will react in a coordinated, practiced manner, using the same tactics, procedures, and language. The Program addresses the reality that the US Coast Guard may not be staffed nor equipped to handle the next major maritime disaster by itself. The Program is innovative in that it worked around the financial and logistical impossibilities of expanding the US Coast Guard to meet the mission by creating this model. Prior to the advent of the NASBLA BOAT Program, state and local agencies employed different tactics and even different terminology, so there was limited interoperability when disasters compelled law enforcement and other maritime response agencies to work together. Now, thousands of maritime responders have been trained to work together under a single national response standard while addressing and preventing emergencies.

Outcome Budgeting
City of Baltimore, MD 

Since 2010, Baltimore has placed results and innovation at the center of the budget process by implementing Outcome Budgeting. Outcome Budgeting rejects the traditional practices of allocating funding to agencies based on the previous year's spending and using across-the-board cuts to close budget gaps. Outcome Budgeting starts with a set of priority outcomes and measurable goals, and requires agencies to make service-level proposals that justify investment in strategies geared towards achieving these outcomes and goals. This framework has enabled Baltimore to reward services that matter most to citizens and demonstrate results, and reduce or eliminate funding for lower value services. It has broken down silos between agencies and shifted to an approach that promotes innovation and collaborative thinking about how to achieve results with a shrinking supply of public dollars.

Pay for Success Funding for Preschool
Salt Lake County, UT 

Salt Lake County's Pay for Success voluntary preschool program closes the math and language arts achievement gap that occurs when children enter kindergarten without having attended a high-quality preschool and are subsequently behind in vocabulary and other skills. More than 30 years of academic research has documented that by the time such children reach third grade, they are almost always consigned to special education classes. Pay for Success preschool was conceived as a pilot program after research from two nonprofits — United Way of Salt Lake and Voices for Utah Children — on the results of early childhood education was presented to state legislators and the mayor’s office. The County Council gave bipartisan budget approval for a one-time $350,000 appropriation. The funding facilitated a public-private partnership to expand voluntary public preschool for an additional 600 economically disadvantaged children in the county. It is thought this was the first time in the US that a county government entity participated in a pay-for-success endeavor.

Property Tax Reward Program
Marlboro Township, NJ 

Originated in Marlboro, NJ, in conjunction with Marlboro Township’s Shop Marlboro! shop local program, the Property Tax Reward Program provides property tax incentives for township residents to keep their purchasing dollars for goods and services in their town. When making a purchase at a local business registered in the program, along with the payment for goods or services, a resident can also submit its registered Shop Local card, previously obtained from the township. The merchant processes the card, resulting in a property tax credit representing a percentage of the sale amount. The reward percentage is determined by the merchant at the time of business registration. The reward amount is collected weekly by a private company and deposited, net of program fee, into a township-dedicated account earmarked for the reduction of the cardholder’s property taxes. The company submits a payment file to the township annually along with the payment of all accrued credits. Since the procedure is the same of that of banks making property tax payments for their borrowers, there is no additional burden on township personnel.

Regional Asset Verification and Emergency Network
OKI Regional Council of Governments 

The Regional Asset Verification and Emergency Network (RAVEN911) is an online mapping system used by first responders during emergency situations. It provides a common operating picture that creates situational awareness and displays real-time information during a disaster or emergency. RAVEN911 bridges jurisdictional boundaries when a catastrophe strikes by combining and linking 12 counties in southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky and southeastern Indiana. The creation of this system occurred in response to the extensive damage the greater Cincinnati region experienced due to windstorms associated with Hurricane Ike in 2008. At that time, emergency responders scrambled to identify essential resources because no easily accessible centralized electronic inventory of critical infrastructure existed. Additionally, emergency responders did not have consistent data when responding to emergency situations.

Regional Centers of Excellence Statewide System of Support
State of Minnesota

The Minnesota Department of Education’s Regional Centers of Excellence and Statewide System of Support (SSOS) is an innovative and effective model for the delivery of turnaround support for Minnesota’s lowest performing schools. This program is used to implement Minnesota’s policies within its approved federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act. Relationships are nurtured and leadership is developed by using a coaching approach to support schools. Previous accountability systems for schools utilized a directive and compliance-oriented approach. The new SSOS is built on the principle that we must build relationships with schools in order to facilitate change. Coaching builds the capacity of school personnel to support ongoing change and empowers schools to leverage change themselves. The program's coaching approach is based on the concepts of equality, choice, voice, reflection, dialogue, and praxis.

Residential Money Back Guarantee Program
City of Tallahassee, FL 

Tallahassee’s Growth Management Department is one of the first governmental bodies to launch a money-back guarantee program for building permits. The program was started in October 2012 after Tallahassee’s city manager and city commissioners sought innovative ways to make the city more business- and customer-friendly by creating incentives for local development without compromising environmental, planning, or public safety standards. The program was designed to address the development community’s concerns that Tallahassee needed to be more business-friendly as well as problems developers and homeowners had with uncertain development review and permitting timelines. The Residential Money Back Guarantee Program, which was originally implemented as a one-year pilot program, guarantees a seven-day (business days), on-time review for initial building permit applications or all monies will be refunded. For resubmittals, the program guarantees a five-business-day review. The program applies to new one- and two-family building permit applications.

Running Start for Careers
City of Albuquerque, NM 

Running Start for Careers is a public-private educational pathway for high school students in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that has served nearly 500 students. Unlike traditional approaches to vocational training, Running Start is not bound by campus infrastructure or trades faculty, nor is it the domain of specialty schools or limited to specific industry types. Rather, Running Start gives students direct entry into industry-developed and taught training programs in fields with demonstrated demand, while earning college credit. High school students enroll in a semester-long, dual-credit career exploration class, held at industry sites, and can then enter work-and-learn positions the following term. The program addresses high dropout rates and the skills gap by supporting those students who are the most likely to quit school and forfeit job opportunities.

Rural-Urban Connections Strategy
Sacramento Area Council of Governments, CA 

In 2008, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), a Metropolitan Planning Organization with a board of elected officials from six counties and 22 cities, responded to criticism that its land use and transportation planning lacked adequate attention to and information about rural parts of the region by launching the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy (RUCS)project. Through technical work and stakeholder engagement, RUCS has brought on par the region’s understanding of both urban and rural challenges and opportunities, and how policies and strategies impact both parts of the region. The region’s prosperity and sustainability are now being viewed more holistically with a notable increase in attention to agriculture and food industries, in particular, and rural issues generally. RUCS seeks not only to support and enhance agriculture but also to conserve open lands and the ecosystem services they provide. Building upon the premise that conservation is bolstered by strategies that increase the value of and revenue from rural lands, RUCS is helping change the region’s perception of its natural assets and how to preserve and manage those lands accordingly.

Section 1140 Enforcement and Outreach
Social Security Administration 

To combat Internet, e-mail, mobile app, Facebook, Twitter, and online advertising violations of Section 1140 of the Social Security Act, agency attorneys in 2011 launched an innovative outreach partnership with search engines, domain registrars, financial institutions, and social media to shut down fraud, phishing, identity theft, and misleading online advertising schemes. Through partnerships with hosting, networking, and commerce companies, the private partners began helping to identify perpetrators and shutting down or suspending violators (and cutting off their ability to process credit card payments) until they complied with Section 1140, often along with the levying of a civil monetary penalty. Cutting off the money proved highly effective in stopping scammers, even offshore websites, in their tracks; some shut down within hours of being unable to process payments.

City of Portland, OR 

Solarize is a community-driven, group-purchase initiative to help residents overcome the financial and logistical hurdles of going solar. In a Solarize program, a government or civic organization partners with a solar contractor on behalf of a community of residents and coordinates a time-limited campaign to encourage residents to install solar panels for a price that is below prevailing market rates.

Energy Trust of Oregon, an independent nonprofit that delivers energy efficiency and renewable energy incentives and programs to Oregon utility customers, collaborated with Portland’s Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition to develop the Solarize model. This initial program resulted in resulted in 130 solar projects — more than three times the number of systems installed in Portland in all of 2008. The program also helped provide 18 professional wage jobs, from site assessors to journeyman electricians. Following that first successful experiment, the city of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) stepped in and began funding and coordinating the program. BPS’s organizing and leadership capacity led to the spread of Solarize locally, regionally, and nationally. To date, more than 170 Solarize campaigns have been run by 60 different organizations in 18 different states including Oregon, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, Texas, New York, and New Hampshire.

Strangulation Program
Maricopa County, AZ 

In 2011, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) partnered with local law enforcement agencies and Scottsdale Healthcare to create a Strangulation Program that provides investigators and prosecutors with the critical evidence needed to file criminal charges against strangulation suspects. In the past, these suspects may have been released due to lack of evidence and often re-abused their victims. Under the program, police and first responders transport domestic violence victims to hospitals and family advocacy centers where forensic nurse examiners conduct a specialized medical-forensic examination and collect advanced photographic documentation, DNA, and other physical evidence to substantiate allegations of strangulation. Since the implementation of this new investigatory approach and program, MCAO prosecutors have nearly quadrupled their filing rates on domestic violence cases involving allegations of strangulation. The vast majority of defendants in these cases have pled guilty and received sentences ranging from probation to up to seven years in prison.

Vacant Land Cleanup & Revitalization Initiative
City of New York, NY

The Vacant Land Cleanup & Revitalization Initiative (VLCRI) addresses social inequality by enabling cleanup and redevelopment of thousands of chronically vacant and abandoned contaminated properties (brownfields) in low- and moderate-income areas in New York City. The city has approximately 4,000 brownfield sites that remain vacant or underutilized because prospective developers fear the risks of environmental liability, construction delays, and cost overruns caused by contamination. Disproportionate occurrence of brownfields in low-income communities represents a profound and largely under-recognized source of social inequality. Since its launch in 2011, the VLCRI has become one of the most prolific cleanup and redevelopment programs in the nation with 310 cleanup projects on 560 tax lots now complete or in the pipeline — producing over 30 million square-feet of new building space, 4,600 new units of affordable housing, hundreds of small businesses, and over 8,000 permanent new jobs — most on chronically vacant land in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. VLCRI also has a powerful return on investment, facilitating over $8 billion in new private investment and resulting in new, long-term tax revenue of over $1 billion each for the city and the state.