Bright ideas driving public sector innovation in austere times

The focus of many western governments is very single-minded: to reduce public expenditure in order to reduce financial deficits, resulting in sever cuts in public services. They should therefore take note of the latest ‘Bright Ideas’ from Harvard University, which actually shows how governments can deliver more from less.

“Government innovation does not require endless resources and generous budgets,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. “As exemplified by this year’s Bright Ideas, some of our country’s smartest innovations can in fact reduce government’s size while serving our citizens more efficiently and effectively.”

This is a far cry from the ability to spend by the governments of the emerging economies and BRIC countries, where they appear to be spending more to kick-start their innovation ecosystems. This is definitely the case in India for example, where Sam Pitroda recently opened a two-day national innovation conference. Speaking at the conference, he also spoke of the telecoms infrastructure investments to boost innovation in the country. “No government across the world has such a huge fund dedicated to facilitate public infrastructure,” Pitroda said. The Indian government is said to have earmarked around US$ 3.5 billion to the national optic fiber network (NOFN) project which envisages connecting 250,000 villages (more information at this link).

And in Brazil, the government recently announced a US$250 million program to boost its software and information technology sectors, plus tax incentives to enhance technology innovation.

Bright Ideas – 111 innovative government initiatives in the USA

The Ash Center at Harvard recognized 111 innovative government initiatives as Bright Ideas. Now in its third year, the Bright Ideas program recognizes and promotes creative government initiatives to encourage innovative ideas to be proposed. This year, a range of solutions address issues such as urban and rural degradation, environmental problems, and the academic achievement of students.

There are many innovations as outlined here on the Harvard Kennedy School web site, with a full list of the 2012 Bright Ideas here.  One example of one of these ideas is from Sacramento County – its Department of Human Assistance developed an automated system that matches the welfare system against data sources from local, state, and federal entities to help detect and prevent welfare assistance fraud and overpayments. This system has saved millions of dollars annually by preventing and reducing welfare assistance overpayments.

Another example is from the city of South Bend, IN, USA, where it installed real-time monitoring and control using “smart valves” technology to meet federal environmental mandates on combined storm and sanitary sewer overflows.  Through the use of distributed sensing and control logic which optimizes performance of infrastructure already in place, the city can save an estimated US$114 million over a conventional approach.

Another of the showcased 111 initiatives is a health and human services video interviewing scheme launched in San Diego County, CA. In conjunction with community partners to improve customer service, it enhances access to public assistance, and increases the efficiency of service delivery for clients who face transportation challenges or other barriers. Targeted populations include pregnant women, migrant farm workers, homeless clients, residents of battered women’s shelters and transitional housing, and both tribal and rural clients.

Innovation and entrepreneurship happening across America

The Harvard Bright Idea is indicative of the innovation going on across America to boost local economies and jobs.  This was illustrated by Rebekah Iliff in an article earlier this year entitled, “Silicon America: 5 start-up economies keeping it real and bringing it back”.  She argues that it’s not just major tech markets like New York, San Francisco, Boston and Los Angeles that are the centers of innovation and entrepreneurship, but almost every region across America is now growing their ecosystems and economies – from Austin to Detroit to Minneapolis to Columbus to Chicago. She quotes Scott Case of the Startup America Partnership who said, “There are amazing startups in every single state in the US focused on solving big problems and growing their companies. Whether it’s Denver, Des Moines or Dallas, founders are building their businesses in their hometowns, establishing vibrant local startup economies and creating jobs.”

EU 2020 initiative to stay globally competitive

The European Commission has taken a more collaborative approach on the global stage to enhance Europe’s position as a global destination for research and innovation. Climate change, food security and fighting diseases are the issues which increasingly require a concerted international research effort. Europe can contribute to it with its science base and innovative industries by being open to international co-operation.

The EU strategy proposes to further focus co-operation on EU strategic priorities while maintaining the tradition of openness to third country participation in EU research. This includes addressing global challenges, but also making Europe more attractive as a location for research and innovation, and boosting industrial competitiveness.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, said: “Going it alone is not an option in research and innovation. It is critical that Europe reaches out to international partners to access new sources of knowledge and address global challenges.” To this effect, Horizon 2020 is the EU’s programme for research and innovation aimed at securing Europe’s global competitiveness. It will be open to participation from across the globe. Running from 2014 to 2020 with an €80 billion budget, this program for research and innovation is part of the drive to create new growth and jobs in Europe.

Summary – innovation from different perspectives around the world

We are seeing different stances from different governments around the world. In some countries in Europe, there is a hard-line government rhetoric on cuts and more cuts, without much policy to enhance innovation and creation of jobs – it is almost pushing itself on a downward spiral out of which there is no way to emerge with any growth. True there are EU-wide programs like Horizon 2020, but that seems focused on blue-sky research which doesn’t yield immediate returns on jobs or economic growth. On the other hand we are seeing innovation across America being showcased by Harvard University, and we are seeing how state governments are proving that technology and innovation can deliver more, save money and create new jobs.

We are also seeing that emerging economies and BRICs are able to invest and potentially create many new jobs for their aspiring youth and populations. It will only be a question of time before the investments start producing results and these economies start becoming the hotbeds of innovation and jobs for the rest of the world.

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