When Ordinary Americans Accomplish What the Government Can't

Washington may be paralyzed by partisanship, but across the country, grassroots innovators are crafting solutions to our problems.

National Journal

Point the camera toward the pinnacle of American political power in Washington, and the picture that emerges on most days is one of stalemate and drift. On many of the country's most pressing challenges, Washington since the mid-1990s has struggled to reach enough agreement to move very far in any direction. Polarization has suppressed innovation.

But switch the perspective, and the image looks very different. At the grassroots, American society still buzzes with energy, creativity, and dynamism. Signs of innovation continue to sprout around the nation, nurtured by emerging private- and public-sector leaders who are producing new solutions to old challenges.

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).

For the past six months, NJ editors and correspondents, led by staff writer Naureen Khan, have sought to identify innovators making progress on 10 key challenges facing the country — increasing exports; reviving domestic manufacturing; training a 21st-century workforce; reforming higher education and health care; expanding energy production; formulating regional economic strategies; "disrupting" government; promoting digital innovation; and financing infrastructure. Through dozens of interviews with practitioners and experts, as well as through extensive documentary research, we have selected one winner and four finalists in each category. We offer the combined group as a list of 50 problem-solvers Washington can learn from.

The 50 honorees divide about evenly between the four major categories of business, nonprofits, local governments, and public-private partnerships. They are headquartered in 29 states, red and blue alike. The list includes globe-spanning corporate titans such as McDonald's, Alcoa, General Electric, Dow Chemical, and Google, which are forging breakthroughs in training, domestic manufacturing, and digital innovation. But it also features small companies such as K'NEX, which shifted manufacturing jobs from China back to Pennsylvania by redesigning its toys to reduce the requirements for factory assembly while giving kids more options for play; and Omaha's Home Instead Senior Care, which has been so dogged about exporting in-home senior care to countries unfamiliar with the concept that it even coined a Japanese word for its services.

The list finds vitality in nonprofit institutions such as the Edison Welding Institute, which has collectively provided Ohio manufacturers with testing and consulting services they could not afford individually. It likewise celebrates innovation in the public sector, with creative new approaches to financing infrastructure in places like Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and at public universities in Maryland, California, and Arizona that are rethinking operations, demanding efficiencies, and shrewdly deploying technology to hold down costs, expand access, and improve completion.

Strikingly, at a time of intense ideological and partisan polarization not only in Washington but also in an increasing number of state capitals, many of the best programs involve partnerships between the public, private, and civic sectors. The winner in the regional economic-development category, Northeast Ohio's Fund for Our Economic Future, unites business, local governments, universities, and philanthropies to provide comprehensive support for the manufacturers reviving a region once synonymous with industrial decline. In the export category, we chose We Build Green Cities, a public-private partnership in Portland, Ore., that markets the area's architects, engineers, and other professionals to cities around the globe seeking more environmentally sustainable development. In energy, the nascent Center for Sustainable Shale Development could provide a model for connecting industry and environmentalists to maximize the opportunities created by America's energy boom while minimizing the environmental risk.

One message from this exercise is that in the nation's diverse and open society, dynamism is a constant — in periods of political vigor and torpor alike. Historian David M. Kennedy of Stanford University, the general editor of the magisterial multivolume series Oxford History of the United States, noted in an interview, "The ferment and optimism and energy of this highly fluid and flexible society is a drumbeat that goes on whether the political system is working well or not." It's easy to imagine this list, at earlier points in American history, including names such as Edwin Drake, the retired railroad conductor whose tinkering with drilling technology produced America's first oil strike in 1859; Jane Addams, who pioneered the settlement house in Gilded Age Chicago; Henry Ford, for his breakthroughs in mass production; Fiorello La Guardia and Robert Moses, with their cathedral-scale (if sometimes destabilizing) building of New York City's roads, bridges, and parks during the Depression; William Levitt, whose Levittown, for better or worse, defined the post-World War II middle-class suburb; and Jack Maple, William Bratton, and Rudy Giuliani, whose CompStat system of using data to pinpoint crime patterns transformed policing. Tinkering, refining, rethinking, changing the world from a workbench in the garage: These are all deep grooves in American life.

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."

Consider our category of social entrepreneurs, who seek to "disrupt" government by devising more efficient and effective ways of delivering social services, just as business entrepreneurs seek to disrupt existing markets with new products. "Most of them say, "˜We will never be big enough to touch all of these problems by ourselves,' but they do see themselves as having a role in disrupting and then partnering with government to spread it more widely," says Kim Syman, a managing partner at New Profit, a venture philanthropy that invests in social entrepreneurs. In that insight, today's entrepreneurs are following earlier social innovators such as Addams, who started by providing direct services to the huddled masses of immigrants in Chicago, and eventually sought to lift more lives by changing laws as well.

Throughout American history, government's role has been more restrained in the purely economic sphere, represented here by categories such as reviving domestic manufacturing and expanding exports. Yet government, of course, has enormously affected the course of those spheres, too, not only in the obvious ways of taxation and regulation but also by establishing the basic legal and physical framework in which innovation can occur. "One of the distinguishing characteristics of this society over time has been the sheer volume of energy," Kennedy says. "That's kind of a constant of nature, but it can only go so far without these stable and nurturing institutions like patent law, intellectual property, infrastructure, transportation, communication, education. Without that kind of environment, all the innovation in the world would not come to its fullest fruition."

Our current inability to transcend partisan stalemate on big problems like the debt and deficit, sluggish job growth, immigration, and education resembles other periods when the political system could not muster the consensus to set a clear direction, such as the decade before the Civil War, when the growing threat of disunion paralyzed Washington, and the quarter-century after that war, when an often scandal-ridden capital offered little direction to a society convulsing through the epic changes of industrialization, urbanization, and massive immigration. With the American people still closely divided between the two political parties, no one would bet too heavily on this stalemate resolving on any but a handful of issues (with immigration topping that list) before 2016, or even necessarily after.

Our intractable political deadlock is what prompts some at home and abroad to question whether America is losing its capacity for self-renewal. But the bursting innovation chronicled in the following pages shows that the hardening dysfunction of our national political system is actually the exception in this perpetually young and vibrant society. Since 2000, America has faced arguably its most challenging period since the Depression and World War II. Yet fresh thinkers in the public, private, and civic sectors are responding to those challenges every day — and proving that President Clinton captured a lasting truth when he declared in his first Inaugural Address, "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America."

See the finalists in each categoryDigital Innovation | Expanding Exports | Workforce Training | Health Care | Financing Infrastructure | Disrupting Government | Regional Economic Strategies | Education | Energy