George Washington: Father of an Innovative Nation

In his excellent new book, Washington's Farewell, author John Avlon chronicled the writing and reception of our first president's effort to leave the country with a bit of advice before exiting stage left to his home in Mount Vernon. For generations, the Farewell Address has been thought in our schools, read aloud on the Senate Floor, and guided his successors both in how they have framed their administrations, but also how they have framed their own farewells as they to left the Oval Office.

His sentiments were echoed by Jefferson, Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan and Clinton, handed down the line to a succession of leaders who knew what it meant to sit, not on the left or right of American politics, but atop, responsible for the lives of its people and the future of its children.

There are many thoughtful and memorable aspects to the Farewell Address. One such enduring message that has resonated through the centuries is that our loyalty should be to our country, and not to political parties.

George Washington presided over a fragile, fractious country and he knew the danger of being divided. His career was spent serving as the glue that held America together in times of war and of peace. He served when he asked to serve, and he relinquished his power willingly. Though he was far from faultless, his message was authoritative and eminently credible. It was the advice of a selfless leader who did want to see a republic with so much potential suffer the fate of all republics that came before it.

We all know how his fear of parties played out. His own cabinet broke out in a dangerous bit of partisanship even as he held office. But, despite divisions in the capitol, Washington saw the country's power in an enlightened peoples’ ability to come together and make decisions. As long as we remained united, Americans could make the choices that would lead to strength and prosperity.

This is a belief that many might find hokey, and there are times throughout our history where this sentiment simply has not matched our national experience. Today, with politics in DC more partisan than ever, and Congressional approval ratings in the single digits, it's hard to put much stock in Washington's belief that "with slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles."

However, the burgeoning field of public sector innovation is applying those beliefs in a big way. Taking its cue in many respects from marketing and product design and business development, cities are ignoring party parochialism and applying new approaches focused on creating solutions that work for the populations they are trying to reach. With greater access to data and by incorporating end-users of its services - our residents - they are achieving measurable results against longstanding issues.

  • In New Orleans, a cross-sector team led by the public sector including nonprofits, academics, philanthropy and anchor institutions have come together to support African American men in New Orleans in an approach that links individuals directly to employment through a coordinated effort. Over the past five years, the Black-male non-employment rate in New Orleans has fallen by 16%, with median incomes rising 11%. While there is still a lot of work to do, the group’s Opportunity Center efforts had led to employment for hundreds of African Americans while maintaining an exceptional retention rate, and their Mobilization Fund is has leveraged $850,000 to support $6 million in City contracts for Disadvantage Business Enterprises working on municipal infrastructure projects.
  • In Memphis, the city’s Innovation Delivery Team funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies pioneered the MemFix program, which used a community driven approach to craft a “series of community events designed to rethink and activate streets and vacant storefronts.” By demonstrating the ‘art of the possible,” while also working with prospective entrepreneurs by providing business assistance and small loans as part of its MemShop effort, they were able to decrease vacancy rates by 82% and 76% in the Binghampton and Madison/Cleveland corridors respectively, while increasing gross sales receipts by 14% across all target areas between 2011 and 2014.
  • In Philadelphia, the City’s Revenue Department took a behavioral insights approach to understand why some of its most vulnerable residents, fixed-income seniors, were not taking advantage of valuable assistance programs. By using philanthropic money and partnering with universities to run controlled behavioral science trials, experimenting with colors, size of fonts , and envelopes, they were able to improve participation rates by 178% in the City’s Senior Water Discount program, and increased annual savings to property tax payers by 80%.

These are just a few examples of cities that are, knowingly or not, putting Washington's wisdom into practice. A few weeks ago I, an Independent, reflected on my cumulative experiences with government innovation and offered advice to Jared Kushner and the newly formed White House Office of American Innovation on how successful Innovation teams get things done. A day later, an arguably better written piece by Robrt Shea, a Republican alumni of the George W. Bush Whitehouse, and Andrew Feldman, a Democrat alumni of the Barack Obama administrations appeared in Politico to do the same. Other articles have featured academics, policy-wonks, and former officials of both parties to opine on the same.

What brought disparate voices from across the political spectrum together? A feeling that an innovation office in the White House is one place where we might be able to remove the political and focus on solutions that work for America. It is advice like creating partnerships, identifying the experts you already have on staff, and collaborating with the public and focusing on data that removes the partisan lens from governing and focuses us on evidence and results.

No innovation office, in the White House or otherwise, will overcome politics by itself. Certainly the priorities of an innovation office can be set by the far Right and Left as they see fit. But by applying an innovation framework that drowns out the noise and focuses on results, we can come a little bit closer to Washington’s vision of a more perfect union.

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