Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Text4Baby Going Big

    Over at the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Hillary Chen provides a progress report today on Text4Baby, a health information service provided to new and expecting mothers by text message, made possible by a public-private partnership.

    During her visit to Memphis earlier this week, Sonal Shah highlighted Text4Baby as one of the many innovative ways that government is addressing challenges like infant mortality. Memphis has tremendously high infant mortality rates, due in part to expecting and new mothers not engaging in appropriate, evidence-based behaviors to ensure the health of their babies.

    Read Hillary's post today to find out more about the partnership and, if you know someone who is a new or expecting mother, have them text "Baby" (for English) or "Bebe" (for Spanish) to 511411 to sign up.

    Charlie Anderson is a Policy Assistant in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

  • Community Solutions Tour: Porter-Leath and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis

    I had a pretty full day yesterday, sandwiching my visit to Youth Villages between two other Community Solutions Tour stopsPorter-Leath and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis.

    For over 160 years, Porter-Leath has been assisting at-risk children and families in Memphis, helping more than 10,000 low-income children and families annually with programs designed to meet their developmental, health and social needs at the earliest opportunity.  Porter-Leath addresses the dire need for infant mortality prevention by utilizing AmeriCorps members as paraprofessional home visitors to deliver an evidence-based curriculum into the home of at-risk pregnant women— resources on prenatal care, nutrition, and infant health are shared with the mother-to-be over the course of the pregnancy with bi-weekly visits.  (As an aside: One thing that I continue to find with many of the innovative organizations I visit is that when you pull back the curtain, they often effectively use voluntary service and national service resources like AmeriCorps to deliver their program model, showing that the service agenda and social innovation agenda often go hand-in-hand.)

    And in continuing the theme of yesterday’s post on the importance of measurement and evaluation, Porter-Leath has partnered with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center to provide an independent evaluation of its programs.  Porter-Leath utilizes the evaluation results to improve the quality and efficacy of its services—ensuring that the program is making improvements in the lives of the most at-risk children and families.  The results are telling:  In an area with one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, over 93 % of babies that underwent the Porter-Leath program in 2008 were born with a healthy birth weight of at least 5.5 pounds, the leading factor in infant mortality.  The program is not only effective but affordable with the cost being only $1,354 for 20-40 home visits over a one-year period as opposed to the average cost of a two-week stay in the neo-natal intensive care unit for a low birth weight baby being $75,000.

    Sonal Shah Visits Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis

    Sonal Shah visits with students and their mentors as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters after-school mentoring program at Ross Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee. May 4, 2010. (by Morgan Mukarram)

    The President and First Lady have continually emphasized the importance of mentoring as a means of service—launching the White House Mentorship Program to put their own words into action.  As the President said during a Ceremony in Honor of National Mentoring Month on January 20, 2010:

    That’s why mentoring is so important.  We know the difference a responsible, caring adult can make in a child’s life:  buck them up when they’re discouraged; provide tough love when they veer off track; being that person in their lives who doesn’t want to let them down, and that they don’t want to let down; and refusing to give up on them—even when they want to give up on themselves.

    Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Memphis is one of the many chapters of the national Big Brothers Big Sisters carrying out this mentorship mission.  The program targets the most at-risk-children of incarcerated individuals, children from single parent households, and children who are in foster care.  The program applies community-based mentoring—one-on-one time spent between the volunteer and young person around a shared activity or interest that can range from performing a service project together or shooting hoops after school.  In a nationwide study, Little Brothers and Little sisters were found to be 52% less likely to skip school and 46% less likely to use illegal substances. 

    Today I ended my tour of Memphis with an address before the Annual Conference of the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence. The Conference brings together non-profits from across the region to discuss a range of topics—from measuring impact to focusing on community-based solutions.

    It’s been a privilege to visit all of these organizations and to have the opportunity to speak to many of the community leadership and engaged citizenry of Memphis. Let us know where you are seeing similarly great work by sending us your feedback.

    Sonal Shah is Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House Domestic Policy Council.

  • Community Solutions Tour: Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee

    Today I will be making a Community Solutions Tour stop at Youth Villages in Memphis, Tennessee.  Youth Villages serves more than 15,000 children in ten states with one simple mission:  to help behaviorally troubled children and their families live successfully.  When President Obama announced the creation of the Social Innovation Fund, he highlighted Youth Villages as an example of an organization that identifies and supports “the rigorous evaluation and scaling of innovative, promising ideas that are transforming communities.”

    Often, we will use this blog to highlight specific examples of broader principles or mission areas embraced by our Office. One of the principles underpinning our Office’s mission is the belief that “strong programs and organizations measure and evaluate what works and why, continuously improve when presented new information, and invest in the most effective solutions.”   Youth Villages puts that belief into action.

    So just what makes Youth Villages so successful in transforming lives?   The answer stems in large part from their results-driven approach to treatment.  In addition to a residential program for children facing these challenges, Youth Villages has adopted a preference for home-based treatment of children living with their families in their communities, which has shown solid results.

    Youth Villages continually collects and analyzes data from its programs, and drives the knowledge generated from that data back into how they do business.  Tracking youth who receive at least 60 days of service at six, twelve, and twenty-four months after they leave the program, Youth Villages followed up with more than 12,000 children and their families in 2009.  This diligent process has allowed Youth Villages to amass one of the most comprehensive data sets in the country on the treatment of children with emotional and behavioral problems and their families.  More importantly than just collecting the data, they undergo a constant evaluation process that has yielded crucial information and has translated into direct program improvements and improved outcomes for children.

     As one example of continuously improving the information at their disposal, Youth Villages has hired some of the best minds in the country to figure out how their already robust tracking of their alumni can be improved to be even stronger. This will allow them to make more conclusive assessments of what their programs are doing effectively, and what could be done better.

    As the President recently reaffirmed at the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship last week, “I learned as a community organizer in Chicago, real change comes from the bottom up, from the grassroots, starting with the dreams and passions of single individual serving their communities.”  Starting as a single residential treatment campus in Memphis, Youth Villages has grown to offering a continuum of programs and services to become a nationally recognized leader in the field of children’s mental health.

    I look forward to visiting Youth Villages today as part of the Community Solutions Tour.  And if you know of organizations that are successfully addressing challenges in your community who are using data in an effective way to drive better outcomes for the communities they serve, please tell us about them.

    Sonal Shah is a Deputy Assistant to the President, and Director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

  • White House and Case Foundation Host Summit on Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking

    Ed. note: Beth Noveck and staff from the Office of Science and Technology Policy will be live-blogging from the Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking summit all day on the Open Government Blog.

    Last month, the Administration issued its Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government. The Guidance provides a policy and legal framework for the use of prizes and challenges to promote open government, innovation, and other national priorities. Today the White House and the Case Foundation are hosting a summit on Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking. The day is organized into a combination of presentations and panels, breakout roundtables, and Ignite Sessions all designed to deepen our understanding of how to incorporate prizes and other innovative techniques into the way we solve complex economic and social problems.

    There are over 200 public and private sector participants at this event, learning from one another how to bring innovation to policymaking.

    You can see the program here. While the speeches and panels will be broadcast online next week, today you can watch live interviews with the speakers, including Sonal Shah of the Domestic Policy Council, Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation, Bonin Bough of PepsiCo, and Jim Shelton of the Department of Education.

    We welcome your participation in this event. Before and during the sessions, you can submit questions via Twitter, using the hashtag #opengov, via email at or by using the interactive chat window on the Case Foundation website available during the sessions.

    Beth Noveck is United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of the White House Open Government Initiative.

  • Peace Corps Volunteers are Natural Social Entrepreneurs

    Note: Following is a guest post from Aaron Williams, Director of the Peace Corps. If you didn't catch it, check out the great guest post about Laura Kutner, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala on Earth Day last week.

    Earlier this week, I attended "A New Beginning: Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship" with representatives from over fifty countries.  I was honored to present on a panel of leaders in the field of social entrepreneurship from Egypt, France, Indonesia and the United States. As a commitment to continue the work forged at the Summit, I am also proud to announce that Peace Corps will be increasing the number of opportunities for Americans to serve in our 18 predominantly Muslim host countries by 20% over the next two years.

    Social entrepreneurship is a concept Peace Corps Volunteers embrace every day in our 76 host countries around the world.  Although each Volunteer has a unique experience, all value the power of community and cooperation to create grassroots change.  You would be hard pressed to find a Volunteer, whether with Peace Corps or another organization, ever utter the words, “I did it alone.”

    The social entrepreneurship panel led by the White House’s Sonal Shah emphasized the fact that social entrepreneurs, like business entrepreneurs, are vital components of strong economies and societies. Social entrepreneurship unifies business principles and social ventures by empowering people to organize and create social change in their communities. It fosters sustainable grassroots development, addresses specific challenges and increases capacity building in local communities around the globe.

    The commitment to work with entrepreneurs around the world, including those in predominantly Muslim countries, was a major component of President Obama’s historic speech in Cairo.  Today, over 1,800 Americans serve as Peace Corps Volunteers in 18 predominantly Muslim host countries and, in the last seven months, Peace Corps has added two new Muslim majority host countries, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. Since the inception of the Peace Corps in 1961, more than 44,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in predominantly Muslim nations.

    Peace Corps Volunteers work at the community level on pressing issues including teacher shortages, food security, income generation, environmental challenges and youth engagement. Our Volunteers are adaptive and, through hands-on experience, identify what actions must be taken to support local communities and foster the sustainability of community projects.

    Peace Corps is a people-to-people exchange of ideas, languages and a commitment to creating a stronger community. Find out more about opportunities to serve by visiting

    Aaron Williams is Director of the Peace Corps and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967-1970.

  • Check it Out: Prizes and Challenges Conference Friday

    Our Office will be co-hosting a conference tomorrow on the use of Prizes and Challenges in spurring innovation in government with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Case Foundation. Check out the agenda and find out more about how you can participate and stay involved in the discussion at the Case Foundation’s website.

    As part of the conference, Sonal will be moderating a discussion called “Challenges & Prizes: Early Public Sector Innovators” with representatives from NASA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Joyce Foundation.

    She’ll also be participating in what’s called CaseSoup, an interactive Q&A session where you can engage with Sonal live from 1:00-1:30 PM, in addition to other expert discussions on prizes and challenges throughout the day.  If you have a question, you can tweet it using the hashtag #opengov, e-mail it to, or ask it using the live chat function during the session.

    Sonal will be doing the CaseSoup session with Jonathan Bays of McKinsey, who co-authored And the Winner is…: Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes, an excellent report on how to think through when to use prizes and what types to use that has been very helpful in our thinking.

    Charlie Anderson is a Policy Assistant in the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.