When Ordinary Americans Accomplish What the Government Can’t

in The National Journal: “Washington may be paralyzed by partisanship, but across the country, grassroots innovators are crafting solutions to our problems….This special issue of National Journal celebrates these pragmatic problem-solvers in business, the civic sector, local government, and partnerships that creatively combine all three. At a time of endemic stalemate in the nation’s capital, think of it as a report from the America that works (to borrow a recent phrase from The Economist)….
Another significant message is that the communications revolution, by greatly accelerating the sharing of ideas, has produced a “democratization of innovation,” as author Vijay Vaitheeswaran put it in his 2012 book, Need, Speed, and Greed. This dynamic has simultaneously allowed breakthroughs to disseminate faster than ever and empowered more people inside companies and communities to tackle problems previously left to elites. “One of the most interesting stories in social change today is how much creative problem-solving is emerging from citizens scattered far and wide who are taking it upon themselves to fix things and who, in many cases, are outperforming traditional organizations,” David Bornstein, founder of the Dowser.org website that tracks social innovation, wrote in The New York Times last year. Our honoree Eric Greitens, the former Navy SEAL who founded The Mission Continues for other post-9/11 veterans, personifies this trend. Across the categories, many honorees insist they have pursued new approaches in part because they could no longer wait for Washington to address the problems they face. In a world where barriers to the dispersal of ideas are crumbling, waiting for elites to propose answers may soon seem as outdated as waiting for a dial-up connection to the Internet.
The third conclusion limits the first two. Even many of the most dynamic grassroots innovations will remain isolated islands of excellence in this continent-sized society without energy and amplification from the top. Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, notes the federal government is unavoidably a major force on many of the challenges facing America, particularly reforming education, health care, and training; developing regional economic strategies; and providing physical and digital infrastructure. Washington need not direct or control the response to these problems, but change on a massive scale is always harder without stronger signals and incentives than the federal government has provided in recent years. “It is possible to feed change aggressively from the bottom,” Kettl says. “[But] the federal government, for better or worse, inevitably is involved…. There’s a natural limit in what’s possible to bubble up from the bottom….
Special issue at https://web.archive.org/web/2013/http://www.nationaljournal.com/back-in-business ”