Politics

White House Creates Office Of Innovation

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The Obama administration has created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. The idea is for the government to work with nonprofit organizations to identify programs that have had proven success in tackling social problems, such as homelessness and joblessness, and then to expand those programs across the country. The office will in effect provide seed money for the most innovative ideas.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene. The Obama administration likes to think of itself as innovative, so it's created something new. It's called the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. NPR's Pam Fessler tells us what that means.

PAM FESSLER: The idea goes something like this.

Ms. MELODY BARNES (Domestic Policy Advisor to the President): There are some great people doing incredible work out and about the country, starting new projects. For example, Teach for America is an example of social innovation.

FESSLER: But Melody Barnes, President Obama's domestic policy advisor, says such groups often have trouble getting the support they need to grow.

Ms. BARNES: The Social Innovation Fund will provide the seed capital to try and get these new ideas, these new organizations, up and off the ground.

FESSLER: And hopefully, she says, to spread their efforts across the country to help address deep-seeded social problems in areas such as education, housing and health care. The president has asked for $50 million for the first year. And the administration is talking to foundations, philanthropists and businesses to find matching funds.

The office is still in its infancy. Details are scarce. But many in the nonprofit world are excited by the possibilities, especially as they see other financial support drying up in the current recession. Eric Schwarz is cofounder and CEO of Citizen Schools, one of the programs the administration often touts as the kind of innovation it wants to support.

Mr. ERIC SCHWARZ (Chief Executive Officer, Citizen Schools): Emerson, the philosopher, said if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. And I think in the technology world, maybe in the mousetrap business, that's true. In the nonprofit sector, that's often not true.

FESSLER: In fact, he says, a nonprofit success often means that funders will pull back because they think you don't need them anymore. His 14-year-old program now operates in 20 cities, but he'd like to expand. Citizen Schools recruits professionals to go into low income schools and work with students on what Schwarz calls hands-on learning activities, things such as designing video games and holding mock trials. He says these volunteers help kids realize that education relates to the real world. And he says it's had demonstrable results.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Children who participated in Citizen Schools have graduated high school at dramatically higher rates, have moved on to college track high schools at much higher rates, have done better on standardized tests, done better on grades.

FESSLER: And that's something Melody Barnes says the new White House office will take into account when deciding which programs to back. Have they already proved they can work? But that raises a concern for Allison Fine, who writes a blog about philanthropy and is a senior fellow at Demos, a liberal research and advocacy group.

Ms. ALLISON FINE (Demos): That's not social innovation. That's creating a small business administration for nonprofits out of the White House. It's funding very tried and true approaches.

FESSLER: Fine says when she thinks about social innovation, she thinks about something more cutting edge than programs that have been around for 10 or 15 years.

Ms. FINE: I think about all the ways that we can engage all the brain power we have of people to share new ideas about how to address problems, you know, how to deal with hunger in their communities.

FESSLER: She thinks that might involve things such as the creative use of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to raise money and help communities address their problems. Fine doubts the government is willing to take the kinds of risk needed for real innovation, so she thinks she has a better way for the Obama administration to spend $50 million to help nonprofits.

Ms. FINE: Just give the money to a food bank and be done.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FESSLER: The White House says it's not ruling out anything yet and is open to ideas. Domestic policy advisor Barnes says the government can't address social problems by itself, that it needs to partner with creative people on the frontlines. The new office is just starting to figure out how to identify the best programs out there. She hopes the money will start flowing next year.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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