Supporting a Nation of Social Inventors

Americans have been inventing to improve their social conditions since settlers of the continent first reached our shores. From the Mayflower Compact's experiment in self-government to today's Harlem Children's Zone to help disadvantaged youth, individuals armed with new ideas have been at the forefront of improving our way of life.

Although an old tradition born from free enterprise, this spirit of "social innovation" now has Presidential attention and a White House Office. A bold bipartisan agenda must accompany this rare chance to fuel the movement of social inventors.

Having helped develop both the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and USA Freedom Corps for national and community service, I am familiar with similar efforts. People and institutions of faith or commitment to volunteering have been central to helping the needy since before our nation's birth. Just like President Bush captured these traditions and breathed new life into them, President Obama has an historic opportunity to advance America's spirit of social innovation.

The White House Office of Social Innovation is off to a good start, having developed a $50 million social innovation fund to reward performance, by ramping up innovative efforts in education, health care, poverty and other areas. At a time of stalled social progress and increased poverty, we can envision enhanced support for social entrepreneurs like Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Michael Brown of City Year, Kirsten Lodal of LIFT and others less well known with models that produce results.

But far more needs to be done to move government from status quo funder to catalytic partner of social invention. Based on success and struggle in similar White House efforts, we can learn from history and prompt these actions to open space for innovative social progress:

Presidential Executive Order. Under President Bush, we recommended executive action to establish faith-based offices in most Cabinet agencies to promote change from within the bureaucracy. President Obama should create offices of social innovation in each of the agencies with faith-based offices, perhaps by simply expanding their missions. With a new focus, these offices would examine how government promotes or inhibits social innovation, expose poor performance, identify barriers to entry for creative providers, and provide the poor and vulnerable more choice. Such an effort could foster creativity in community and faith-based organizations.

Race to the Top Funds in Other Departments. Informed by the new offices of social innovation, funds could be created in Departments like Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Interior that have more resources and reach than the small Corporation for National and Community Service that oversees the current social innovation fund. These funds should not be layered on top of poor-performing existing programs, but created from repurposed money for activities not showing results. Instead of rigid requests for proposals that protect the status quo, these funds should broadly solicit new approaches that are willing to rise or fall on success.

Signature Initiatives and Summit. The President should feature signature issues that define what social innovation means. When we tried to sell a similar idea - a "compassion capital fund" - to Capitol Hill, it failed until we said the fund would provide 100,000 mentors for children of prisoners to improve their education, behavior and productivity. Similarly, the President should identify compelling needs that social innovation funds in various departments and agencies will meet, much as Race to the Top addresses the high school dropout epidemic. A White House Summit on Social Innovation should showcase how social entrepreneurs are innovating to solve our toughest problems, and Steve Goldsmith's new book, The Power of Social Innovation, can provide the intellectual framework to help bring more efforts to scale.

Congress on Social Protectionism. Republicans and Democrats should agree that since social progress has slowed despite massive infusions of funding, change is badly needed. When empirical evidence shows a program or grantee does not produce results, Congress must demand competitive agency action to weed out the incompetent. The White House and Congress also should ensure that new legislation supports social innovation. Committees should issue impact statements to accompany new bills to demonstrate a respect for individual choice, support of community solutions, promotion of volunteer service, equal treatment of faith-based groups, and clear performance measures and regular sunsets to keep programs accountable.

Without institutionalizing change, pet projects of Presidents come and go with each passing Administration. The social innovation office is off to a good start with both a new fund and new service opportunities from the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. With some extra Presidential lift on social innovation, they might just make permanent one of America's greatest traditions.

John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises, co-convenor of Service Nation, and former Director of the White House Policy Council overseeing both the faith-based and national service efforts under President George W. Bush.