Creativity in government

TEEN pregnancy, environmental pollution, the homeless, school dropouts, the financial crisis in health care, AIDS - merely to list some of the major social and economic problems confronting this nation is to raise troubling questions about our ability to solve them. The current absence of creative federal initiatives contributes to a perception of government's incapacity to address intractable domestic policy issues. Moreover, the fiscal constraints imposed by huge budget deficits reinforce the notion that new and innovative federal programs are infeasible. A more encouraging - and in my view more accurate - picture of government's problem-solving capacity emerges at the state and local level. In jurisdictions throughout the country, imaginative responses to pressing social and economic needs reveal patterns of innovation with valuable lessons for other cities and states, as well as the federal government.

One such lesson is the value of relatively inexpensive preventive programs rather than costly after-the-fact remedial projects. For many years researchers have documented the long-term educational and social benefits of good-quality preschool programs. Now, in Missouri, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has developed a statewide program to enhance children's development during the formative first three years of life. Seeking to prevent school failure and encourage family well-being, 1,200 trained parent-educators annually provide in-home instruction to more than 35,000 Missouri families.

Another example of this ounce-of-prevention approach is Parents Too Soon, an Illinois program to reduce the incidence and adverse consequences of teen pregnancy. Jointly managed by the state's Departments of Public Health, Public Aid, and Children and Family Services, the program provides at-risk adolescents with a variety of health-care, social, and educational services. Over the last five years Parents Too Soon has contributed to an 18 percent drop in births to Illinois teens between the ages of 15 and 19.

Many innovative government programs involve creative coalition-building among public and private agencies that have a common interest in solving a specific problem. In a program designed to recruit black families as adoptive parents, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services established ties with black ministers and churches to encourage the adoption of one child by one family in each church. The One Church-One Child program succeeded in reducing a backlog of 700 black children awaiting adoption to fewer than 60.

The Homeless Services Network in St. Louis has also successfully developed a broad base of support for its activities. In this program, the city's Department of Human Services coordinates its services with those of the United Way, the Salvation Army, and other groups to meet the short- and long-term needs of the homeless, as well as families and individuals who are at risk of living on the street. Because of the network, St. Louis was able to shelter almost all of its estimated 10,000 homeless last year.

The use of simple technologies to solve complex problems is another hallmark of several creative state and local government initiatives. For example, the Health Department of Fort Worth, Texas, has developed a low-tech, low-cost program to evaluate and improve water quality in the city. Instead of using expensive chemical analyses to detect pollution in storm sewer water, the department tests this water by placing minnows in floating, perforated milk cartons for a day or two. If the fish do not survive, storm drain tunnels are investigated for illegally discharged contaminants.

Another common characteristic of exemplary government programs is a bold leap of imagination that transforms problems into opportunities. The Spofford Juvenile Center in the Bronx, N.Y., once renowned for drug dealing, sex offenses, and assaults on its premises, reformulated the nature of detention, using the ``dead time'' between arrest and trial to intervene in the lives of young offenders with counseling, medical, and school services. Officials in Arcata, Calif., have demonstrated similar powers of imagination by turning an offensive sewage dump into a park and environmental showcase.

These creative programs, and many others like them, suggest a need for fundamental changes in traditional ways of thinking about government and its role in society. Questions about the appropriate levels of taxes and public spending may be less important than analyzing long-term payoffs and the ``value added'' by public programs and investments. Instead of debating whether ``more'' or ``less'' government is desirable, we should encourage government to be a more resourceful and proactive catalyst for solutions. And rather than denigrating politicians and bashing bureaucrats, perhaps we should search for new ways to unleash the talents and creativity of those citizens who have dedicated their lives to public service.

William G. Milliken, former governor of Michigan, chairs the selection committee of the Innovations in State and Local Governments Awards, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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