11/01/2012 | 5.5 mins |

What the Presidential Election Means for Social Innovation

11/01/2012 | 5.5 mins |

We are now in the final sprint of the presidential race. The candidates, their campaigns, and the ringmasters of the media circus surrounding them are frantically underscoring with hoarse voices the high stakes of the election and the stark differences between the two tickets. Perhaps in no area do the differences between the campaigns appear sharper than in their rival approaches to solving social problems. For example, it won't take you long to guess which set of presidential and vice-presidential candidates made the following comments to a group of nonprofit leaders they assembled to present their approach.

The presidential candidate spoke first: "Folks who are struggling don't simply need more government bureaucracy; that top-down, one-size-fits-all program usually doesn't end up fitting anybody. People don't need somebody out in Washington to tell them how to solve their problems, especially when the best solutions are often right there in their own neighborhoods…. The bottom line is clear: Solutions to America's challenges are being developed every day at the grass roots—and government shouldn't be supplanting those efforts, it should be supporting those efforts. Instead of wasting taxpayer money on programs that are obsolete or ineffective, government should be seeking out creative, results-oriented programs like the ones here today."

And here are the vice-presidential candidate's remarks: "The question before us today–and it demands a serious answer–is how do we get the engines of upward mobility turned back on, so that no one is left out from the promise of America? To answer that, we have to take a hard look at the approach government has been taking for the last five decades, and ask ourselves whether it's working. With a few exceptions, government's approach has been to spend lots of money on centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs. …In most of these programs, especially in recent years, we're still trying to measure compassion by how much government spends, not by how many people we help escape from poverty."

Clearly these paired comments come from Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Except they do not. The first quote is from President Obama, speaking to a group of social sector leaders he invited to the White House in June of 2009 for the unveiling of his Administration's plans for driving social innovation and investing in "what works." The second quote does in fact come from Paul Ryan, speaking last week in Cleveland on how a Romney Administration would plan to tackle the problem of poverty.

These passages and the speeches they are drawn from indicate that, whatever their other differences, the two campaigns share several foundational beliefs, including:

  • Much of what government has been doing to address chronic social problems isn't working, and the spending that has gone into these ineffective programs represents a waste of taxpayer dollars;
  • Rather than more top-down solutions driven by the federal government, policy and funding need to be fundamentally recast to rely more on promising community-based programs and providers;
  • The litmus test of a policy is not the inputs (program design or funding levels) but instead the outcomes achieved for people, families, and communities, i.e., whether the targeted social problems are being solved.

This is not to suggest that these shared premises will lead the same course of action. We could expect a Romney Administration to rely much more on block grants to states and localities and on private and faith-based philanthropy to support community-based efforts, with the goal of moving money, responsibility, and authority closer to where the problems need to be solved. For its part, we could expect a second Obama Administration continue to advance initiatives like the Social Innovation Fund, the Investing in Innovation Fund, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visitation Program, with the goal of clearly establishing evidence about what solutions are working and investing federal funding more heavily in them.

Both of these approaches hold promise, and reasonable people can disagree about their respective merits. That said, a newly released Bridgespan report entitled "How Is Investing in ‘What Works' Working?" points to challenges that each approach must overcome. In this report, my coauthors and I share and make sense of feedback from a series of interviews and a recent a survey we did with leaders of nonprofits participating in the Social Innovation Fund (SIF).

Based on what we heard from these leaders, one key challenge a Romney Administration would need to resolve is that, in the experience of SIF-funded nonprofits, state and local government agencies and individuals place less importance on evidence of effectiveness in making funding decisions than funders in the federal government and foundations. Relying on officials and individual donors at the state and local level to make more funding decisions may actually make it harder for our society's scarce resources to go to the most effective solutions. In addition, while the nonprofit organizations doing the best work to support disadvantaged Americans would welcome more philanthropic support, many of them, including 46 percent of the SIF-funded nonprofits who responded to our survey, get the majority of their funding from government. Any significant retrenchment in the public funding streams they draw upon will leave a huge funding gap for private philanthropy to attempt to fill.

The big challenge that a second Obama Administration would face is that its "what works" initiatives currently amount to a paltry few hundred million dollars in a federal budget that totaled $3.5 trillion in 2012. SIF-funded nonprofits are all too aware that the bulk of domestic spending continues to be driven by automatic formulas and input-based considerations, not by evidence of effectiveness. The positive ripples from these initiatives risk being swamped by the federal government's traditional ways of doing business and the resulting inertia embodied in what I have elsewhere called the Social Services Industrial Complex. On a related note, many nonprofits participating in the SIF lament that less effective nonprofits and some uninformed government funders are in effect paying lip-service to evidence-based work, ticking boxes that say it is happening instead of proving that it is through rigorous measurement and evaluation.

While the SIF-funded nonprofit leaders we heard from highlighted several challenges ahead, their feedback also suggests that the movement is gaining momentum. They are encouraged in aggregate that evidence is beginning to matter more to foundations and at least some parts of government. The election will impact the route forward, but it won't change the overall direction. As President Obama himself acknowledged in his White House remarks, "We know there's nothing Democratic or Republican about just doing what works."

What is your take? Have I glossed over an important advantage or challenge in the different approaches that we could expect to see an Obama or Romney Administration take? Are you persuaded as I am that the two campaigns share some at least some foundational premises regarding social innovation? Please weigh in by clicking on the comment link below.

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