What your city can learn about social innovation from SF and NYC

Wed, 2015-09-23 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

The San Francisco Sheriffs Department’s Five Keys Charter School and the New York City Council’s Participatory Budgeting program won Innovation in Government Awards from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

While the recognition is noteworthy, there is a more important aspect to the awards: both will receive $100,000 to replicate and share their successful programs with other cities. “The winners have demonstrated that the spirit of innovation is alive and well in our great cities. This year’s winners should serve as models for how municipal governments can successfully solve some of our most intractable social and political problems today,” said Archon Fung, Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship and Acting Dean of the Kennedy School.

Fighting criminal recidivism with education
The Five Keys Charter School (FKCS), in operation since 2003, was developed by the sheriff’s department to cope with California’s alarmingly high rate of criminal recidivism among its jail and prison inmates – almost 70% of the state’s inmates were sent back to jail or prison over a 10-year period. Fortunately, sheriff’s department officials understood the relationship between education and recidivism and knew that half of the inmates in San Francisco’s prison system did not have a high school diploma.

That led to the department obtaining a charter for its own school to focus specifically on the needs of inmates and to provide them with basic life skills in addition to an education. Now, the school is fully accredited and more than 1,300 are in class daily with a total of 8,000 students at 25 locations, including locations geared toward young people at risk for incarceration. Programs include literacy and English classes, vocational and special education, high school and GED courses and college enrollment. The result? A 30% lower recidivism rate for those students than for prisoners who have not participated. The program has been reproduced in Los Angeles.

Getting citizens involved in city government
The budgeting process may seem the least likely point of entry for cities that want to increase citizen engagement in local government, but the Participatory Budgeting New York City (PBNYC) project is working. A collaboration between the New York City Council, the Participatory Budgeting Project, Community Voices Heard, city residents and others, the program is the fastest-growing of its kind in the country.

PBNYC was initiated by four New York City council members in 2011 as an experiment. Its intent is to engage citizens from the communities generally left out of public engagement efforts. The program works in eight month cycles in which thousands of citizens attend numerous meetings and develop ideas on spending that will most benefit their communities. From those meetings, many citizens become “budget delegates” who work with city officials to explain what they want and develop budget proposals. Funding is provided from the discretionary funds of individual city council members.

“When leaders invest power in communities, everyone wins,” said Josh Lerner, co-founder and executive director of the Participatory Budgeting Project. “Participatory budgeting brings new voices into civic life and PBNYC shows that more voices lead to better decisions and stronger communities.”

Related articles:
Is your city falling behind? How technology is transforming citizen engagement
Smart Cities are About People Not Technology

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.