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Generating "Radical" Ideas for Government Innovation -- A Starter List

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Though the more ambitious effort to reform California's broken system of government through a constitutional convention was stymied this year, one thing has been made very clear: the craving for, and spirit of reform that launched the convention is alive and well in California and elsewhere.

In that spirit I'd like to suggest another group of five "radical" ideas for overhauling our government at all levels. Each is evidence of a much needed tsunami of innovation for the public sector. In fact, they're all examples of applying the energy and drive of private sector innovation to public challenges. They also offer the needed improvements in performance required for credible fiscal health in the years ahead. All are representative of the type of creativity we expect to see from the state that gave the world Google, Genentech, Avatar, and the iPhone. Better still, each one can be executed for less than the cost of placing a single initiative on a state ballot (currently running $1-3 million depending on the state), and together form the beginning of a portfolio of initiatives for concrete action intended to jolt the status quo.

Here are the first five. I will follow up with greater detail on each in subsequent posts:

Our city council just secured a new round of VC funding. Harnessing the power of venture capital and top management techniques, many schools and social sector organizations are already recipients of private funding and expertise to help assure their success. The Full Circle Fund led by Amy Lesnick and Ted Mitchell's NewSchools Venture Fund are two such examples that connect the social and private sectors, fostering new synergies and hybrids. They offer models, that when expanded and applied to the public sector, will bring the type of focus that makes for higher performing organizations serving their constituents better. Adaptation of this model into something akin to a Fund for Public Innovation fueled by tax deductible donations and dedicated citizen "investor-experts" could improve our communities by bringing much needed dollars and talent to bear on public problems.

There's an app for that. Online and legally binding digital petition drives are growing closer to reality. As familiar and storied as they may be, the days of standing outside the supermarket and gathering signatures are numbered. With widespread access to mobile phones, the Internet, not to mention the ease of certifying digital and individual-supplied information, Jude Barry and others are making the promise of quick citizen referenda real. Beyond the money savings this innovation offers, it also promises to break the stranglehold that private signature gathering companies have over most states' initiative processes. The concept, which scares entrenched interests to death, has not proven legal yet but it is being tested in San Mateo County California and is working its way through the courts. Much like online political donations -- which were once taboo but now praised as the lifeblood of popularly financed campaigns -- we will likely be signing petitions from home soon and having a direct say on many issues we care about.

Ross Perot rides again. There is new room for a third party in state politics. And while third party has often meant spoilers like Perot and Nader at the national level, widespread and growing dissatisfaction with the two incumbent parties have created a gaping middle ground ripe for harvest. Governing paralysis, partisan bickering, and do-nothing legislatures have opened up this space. The analog is playing itself out in the UK now with Nick Clegg seizing upon similar sentiment to great effect in a political system not dissimilar to our own. Hiram Johnson at the turn of the last century became California's governor winning that office on a third party platform, helping found the Progressive Party, and giving rise to change on important issues like women's suffrage. These are all facts not lost on many talented, public-spirited people sitting on the sidelines seeking to engage, but who would otherwise not do so in the current two-party morass. This may well change soon.

The online constitutional convention. The normal process to call a convention is to first jump through the requisite legal hoops to gain the right to convene, and then set about changing governing constitutions. Yet nothing says that you can't just hold the convention first. In fact, why not convene an online, constitutional wiki for citizens to propose and dispose of ideas that make the most sense? A "wisdom of crowds" discussion of this sort would be tremendously powerful, laying the groundwork for real change. Stephen Hill of the New America Foundation has described a number of ways forward. The results will be hard to ignore if the sentiment comes directly from a thoughtful, deliberative process by engaged citizens.

You are now entering a bad rule free zone. The San Francisco Bay Area, greater Los Angeles, Chicago, (insert your town here) charter regions would receive special dispensations from some of the rigors of state-mandated bureaucratic rulemaking. Much like existing charter schools, this charter status would allow them powerful latitude for local decision making and demonstrating the power of new ideas. These may include: shared services consolidation; special taxing districts for directed purposes of their choosing like improving schools or channeling funds for clean tech incubators growing local green industries. Stanford's Paul Romer has been demonstrating the power of this idea overseas. The time for more such pilots on our soil is now.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of candidates for the type of innovation that will be necessary. Some will work and others will fail. The great thing about the "radical" nature of all of these is that much like the world of venture capital or R&D, if only one idea works you can propel yourself into the top quartile of performers. If more than one works then you become a certified hero. Citizens and states struggling for real reform would also win big as we change the trajectory of our ailing public institutions. Here's to "radical" innovation in our public sector.

I've offered up five candidates, what are yours?