WHEN the Ford Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government joined forces eight years ago to start an awards program for creative thinking by public employees, the goal was to ``reposition'' government. At the time, most politicians were ``running against Washington,'' says Meryl Libbey, the program's associate director at the Kennedy School in Cambridge, Mass. Government was typically portrayed as the cause of problems.
The idea, says Michael Lipsky, who's in charge of the program at the Ford Foundation, was ``to try to bring some life to the proposition that government - particularly state and local government - could be part of the solution to severe social problems.''
Each year since 1986, the Innovations in State and Local Government Awards have done just that, showing that useful, often money-saving ideas can spring from the supposedly gray ranks of bureaucracy.
Last year's winners ranged from Seattle's use of voice-mail technology to help homeless people establish phone addresses and thus have a better chance of finding work to a Columbia, S.C., program that transforms rundown properties into attractive, affordable homes for police.
By showcasing ``successful models of innovation,'' Ms. Libbey says, the awards program hopes to encourage ``creative governance'' and demonstrate to the public that ``good government is not an oxymoron.''
How widely have award winners been copied? Libbey says she and her colleagues recently reviewed the first 50 innovation-award winners and found ``tremendous replication rates.'' A good example, she says, is the ``Parents as Teachers'' program in Missouri. It trains parents to help with their child's intellectual development. The program has virtually been ``franchised'' nationwide, Mr. Lipsky says.
The $100,000 award given to Missouri in 1987 was used to set up a center for sharing information about the program. Replication efforts have included production of videos, public-education programs, and even travel money so officials could spread the word about their innovation. The Ford Foundation gives out $1.3 million each year for the awards, with $100,000 to the top 10 finalists and $20,000 to 15 runners-up.
Replication doesn't have to mean exact duplication of a program, Lipsky says. An award-winning effort in San Diego to create single-room occupancy dwellings for homeless people has spawned national legislation, he says. That illustrates how an idea can flow around even if a lot of similar programs don't sprout elsewhere.
Another past winner is a New York program to help single mothers on welfare make the transition to work. The concepts in that program have helped shape the welfare-reform thinking of the Clinton administration, Lipsky says. He says the awards program has also had a part in advancing the administration's goal of ``reinventing government.''
But applying a good idea in another location may not be as simple as it sounds. Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine, wrote in a column that the innovations most likely to multiply are those that don't require people to change their behavior.
An Oregon program to computerize the bidding process on state contracts will spread immediately, he predicted, while New York City's Central Park East High School, which emphasizes personal attention and uses student portfolios instead of grades, isn't as likely to proliferate, since it challenges people to change.
Lipsky's response to that observation is that ``if all you're looking for are the easy bets, there are lots of things you wouldn't try to do.''
``One of the things we haven't given up in American government,'' he says, ``is the possibility of redemption - that people can change.''
Does management have to change before innovation is allowed to happen? Lipsky says Ford Foundation researchers are trying to ``understand the enabling environment, but we're not sure we know what this is yet.'' It's not just a matter of more caring management styles. He recalls some innovators saying ``nobody was watching me and no one cared ... I got away with it.''
``With the extraordinary variety of subnational governments in the United States,'' Lipsky says, ``it shouldn't surprise us that generalizations about how innovations in government arise are pretty elusive.''
Libbey notes that innovators are often right on the ``front lines,'' close to the ``customers.''
``People in the trenches tend to be the engines that really fuel an idea and make it burn and work,'' she says.
The deadline to enter the 1994 awards competition was the first week of January, though that may have to be stretched a bit, Libbey says. She expects about 1,600 entrants. Over a six-month review period, that number will be narrowed to 25 finalists. The awards staff hires policy experts to visit the sites of each of those programs. The selection of top winners is made by a national committee that includes leaders in government, the academic world, journalism, and business.
Applications come from the smallest jurisdictions and the largest, Libbey says. One of the most satisfying aspects of the awards, Lipsky adds, is the appreciation from those who receive them. ``People come up ... pump your hand and say `I'm so glad someone is noticing.' '' It's a huge morale booster, he says.