Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation Blog

  • Open Government Laboratories of Democracy

    Cross-posted from the Office of Science and Technology's OSTP Blog 

    "It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system," Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote in 1932, "that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country."  The Obama Administration is taking unprecedented strides toward creating the most open and accountable government in history. And in so doing, we’re learning from those states and municipalities, which are undertaking exciting experiments to bring transparency, participation, and collaboration to the way they work as well.

    Inspired by the President’s call for more open government, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts launched its data catalogue, following in the footsteps of Washington, DC, San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere around the country (as well as cities in Canada and the UK), to provide public access to information by and about government. What makes this exciting is not merely having transportation information available in machine-readable formats, but that professional and amateur enthusiasts can then get together, as they did last weekend, to create new software applications and data visualizations to better enable public transit riders to track arrival times for the next subway, bus, or ferry. Publishing government information online facilitates this kind of useful collaboration between government and the public that transforms dry data into the tools that improve people’s lives. (For another great example, check out what happened when we published the Federal Register for people to use.)

    The National Association of State CIOs is helping to spur this movement toward greater data transparency at the state level by publishing “Guidance for Opening the Doors to State Data.”

    Just as the federal government is using online brainstorming with government employees and the public to generate ideas for saving money or going green, state and local governments are also using new technology to tap people’s intelligence and expertise. The City of Manor, Texas (pop. 5800) has launched “Manor Labs,” an innovation marketplace for improving city services.  A participant can sign up to suggest “ideas and solutions” for the police department, the municipal court, and everything in between. Each participant’s suggestion is ranked and rewarded with “innobucks.” These innobucks points can be redeemed for prizes: a million innobucks points wins “mayor for the day” while 400,000 points can be traded for a ride-along with the Chief of Police.

    Manor is also one of the few cities currently using bar codes (known as QR or Quick Response Codes) to label physical locations around town. These bar codes can be scanned with a mobile phone to communicate historical and touristic information, data about the cost of a municipal service, or emergency management information. Manor is experimenting with techniques for providing different information to different audiences. If a resident scans a QR code outside a home for sale, she gets the floor plan and purchase price; whereas the building inspector gets the inspection history; and the first responder gets information about the current occupant.

    As more of these innovative projects that foster open government go live and achieve results, we look forward to showcasing some of them on our blog and eventually making details available on the Open Government Innovation Gallery.  Developers with new tools to offer to facilitate open government – including free social media applications -- should also check out and list their products (here’s how) for others to use. Openness and accountability are the responsibility of government at every level.  By getting out the word about innovations that help to realize open government in practice, we can both promote new experiments and help people find and re-use the best ones.

    Visit the OSTP blog to comment on this post.

    Beth Noveck is Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government

  • Openness and Patent Reform: USPTO Launches Director’s Blog

    David Kappos, the new Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), has taken on a tough mission that is critically important for the future of American innovation:  fix our broken patent system and reduce the USPTO’s backlog of applications in order to foster job creation and economic growth. Mobilizing the skills and expertise of the USPTO’s staff, he has already begun to make noticeable progress towards reform.

    On the open government front, we’re particularly excited to see Director Kappos’s new blog.  In his first post, he lays out his priorities and goals, presents the results of some early reforms, dives right into the substantive debate around patent reform legislation, and invites input from stakeholders across the spectrum of IP interests. It’s a terrific start to a blog that we’ll be reading avidly.

  • Recognizing the Scientists of Today and Tomorrow

    First Lady Michelle Obama at Dept. of Energy

    (First Lady Michelle Obama visits the Department of Energy for the National Science Bowl competition in Washington, D.C., Nov. 5, 2009. Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton) November 5, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

    During a visit yesterday to the Department of Energy, First Lady Michelle Obama was all smiles as she praised employees for their bright ideas, innovation, and hard work—all in the name of making the United States a more energy-efficient country. She also made sure to highlight the importance of investing in the future scientists of the country—the children who today sit in math and science classes across the country, and tomorrow will be working in our labs:

    But whether it's doing groundbreaking scientific research; or ensuring our nuclear security; making our homes, our offices, our cars, appliances more efficient; or fighting to turn the tide on climate change, what you're doing here couldn't be more urgent.  Your work is critical for our economy and our national security and preserving our environment for our kids and our grandkids.  That's the work that you do.

    And it's not easy.  Everyone knows it's not easy.  And I know that most of what you're working on right now, as hard as you're working, probably won't even be finished this year, or maybe not even this administration, or even during the course of your careers here at the Department.  You may not see the final outcome of the work that you're doing.

    So in the coming decades, you all will be passing the torch to the next generation.  Truly, you're going to be handing over what you've begun to a lot of young people who are right now just beginning to develop -- those future scientists and public servants.  And it truly will be up to that next generation, it's going to be up to them, our children, our grandchildren, the young people that we mentor, it's going to be up to them to carry all of this wonderful work forward. 

    Steven Chu at Dept. of Energy

    First Lady Michelle Obama listens as Energy Secretary Steven Chu asks questions during the National Science Bowl competition at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C., Nov. 5, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton) November 5, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

  • A Community on the Cutting Edge of Science

    Two weeks ago, the National Conversation on the Future of America’s Cities and Metropolitan Areas took us to Seattle, Washington to see the city’s marriage of economic development and livability. Joined by Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ron Sims, Assistant Secretary of Economic Development for the U.S. Department of Commerce John Fernandez, and NIH Director for the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences Dr. Robert Croyle, we toured the South Lake Union neighborhood.

    SBRI’s Bioquest education program

    Left to right: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Assistant Secretary John Fernandez, Adolfo Carrion, and Ron Sims meet with kids that are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. October 14, 2009. (by Alaina Beverly)

    In the past five years, over 2.7 million square feet of space has been constructed at South Lake Union for the biotech and life science industry, placing Seattle at the forefront of medical innovation. This neighborhood, combined with mixed-use and affordable-housing development and public transportation solutions, showed us how regional economic development initiatives can include and foster smart growth.

    Our day began with an overview of the South Lake Union neighborhood at the Vulcan, Inc. Discovery Center. There we learned of Mayor Greg Nickels’ successful efforts since 2002 to recruit biotech and life science organizations. Why? Good jobs. These businesses provide high-wage jobs and like to locate close to one another to foster collaboration. In short, biotech businesses make good “regional innovation clusters.” In Seattle’s case, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington (UW) were early biotech anchors that helped to attract other biotech businesses. 

    I especially enjoyed our stop at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI), a leader in infectious disease research. There we received presentations on the work of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, UW Medicine and the Washington Global Health Alliance. All of these “heavyweight” research and global health institutions are housed in a 60-block radius, sharing ideas, students, facilities and often clientele.

    The reason the visit to SBRI was special is because we got to talk to high school students who are taking advantage of SBRI’s Bioquest education program. The aim of Bioquest is to inspire the next generation of scientists by allowing teenagers to get hands-on experience in a lab and meet working scientists and researchers. Dr. Robert Croyle found it particularly rewarding to see kids benefiting from the over $86,000 in Recovery Funding that was awarded to SBRI to expand the Bioquest program, offering college credit to high school seniors.

    Bart Harvey Senior Residential Development

    Left to right: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, Adolfo Carrion, and Deputy Secretary Ron Sims outside the Bart Harvey Senior Residential Development. October 14, 2009. (by Alaina Beverly)

    But South Lake Union is not just about science, collaboration and commercialization. It is about community. During our walking tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Bart Harvey residence for low-income seniors. The six-story building has an enviable array of amenities—a library room with a computer lab, community meeting space, offices for case management and support services, and a green roof that provides a  panoramic view of the Seattle skyline – my favorite though, a rooftop herb garden.  We spoke to one resident who expressed her love for her new home. She said, “I am comfortable here. We have everything at our fingertips. Maybe it’s just me, but I love to go up to the garden on the roof and watch the planes touch down.” 

    Sharon Lee, Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute explained, “We need to make sure low-income people can live in middle-class neighborhoods not only in distressed communities.We have changed the look of low-income housing. Not only is it well designed, it’s green.”

    We topped off the day with an important policy discussion about the qualities that define a successful regional innovation cluster, the role of the federal government in supporting that type of development, and lessons learned from the South Lake Union experience. Ada Healy, Vice President of Real Estate for Vulcan, Inc., the key local private sector partner noted, “This group came together because of extraordinary leadership, coordination, and cooperation from the Mayor’s Office, the Gates Foundation, the non-profit community, government, and business. There was an atmosphere of trust and a commitment to not just create offices where people work from 9-to-5, but real communities.”  

    Assistant Secretary John Fernandez explained that the Economic Development Administration is looking to “create a bridge” to encourage innovations that reach beyond the center and positively affect the whole region.”

    Our trip to Seattle showed us that smart, coordinated planning can attract a cluster of businesses to a neighborhood and spur regional economic development, and train the next generation of scientists, provide housing for seniors, and create a more livable community. Thanks, Seattle!!

    Adolfo Carrión, Jr. is Director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs and Deputy Assistant to the President

  • Innovation with Crawfish Sauce: What a New Orleans Nonprofit Can Teach the Rest of the Country

    Earlier this month, I joined the President in New Orleans for his first visit there since the election.  A key part of the President’s message was that the Gulf Coast’s recovery didn’t flow just from government programs and policies:

    I've talked a lot today about what steps we've taken at the federal level to help the Gulf Coast recover and rebuild.  But the true story is this community's unbending resilience.  That doesn't start in Washington.  It starts right here, in the reborn neighborhoods of New Orleans. . . . The story of this city's resilience begins with all the men and women who refused to give up on their homes; who stayed to clean up and rebuild -- not just their own homes or their own yards or their own lives, but their neighbors', too.

    I wanted to witness this bottom-up strength firsthand, so after the president’s speech, I visited Café Reconcile, one of the many innovative community organizations that have stepped up to help the Gulf Coast recover following Katrina.

    Melody Barnes at Cafe Reconcile

    Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes, along with Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and Tulane University President Scott Cowen, poses with the staff of Café Reconcile in New Orleans. October 15, 2009.

    Located in the distressed Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, Café Reconcile ( helps at-risk young people aged 16-22 with life skills, while training them for jobs in the restaurant business, one of the largest employers in New Orleans. Reconcile’s students are poor, many are high school dropouts, come from broken homes, are victims of abuse, or are veterans of the juvenile justice system. Café Reconcile provides case management, academic training, and on-the-job experience at a working restaurant that is popular for its staples like baked chicken, fried catfish (with or without crawfish sauce), and jambalaya.

    On Thursday I sat down with staff and participants to enjoy a late lunch.  We were joined by Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu and Tulane University President Scott Cowen.

    “There are no bad kids on the streets of New Orleans,” Reconcile’s Director of Programs, Donna Bowie told us. “They may not have had the nurturing and support that you and I had, but that's what we provide at Café Reconcile."

    One by one, the young program participants and alumni shared their stories, stories of heartbreaking challenges like teenage pregnancies and run ins with the law, but also stories of redemption, of the difference it makes to have caring adults, supportive peers and a job to do. 

    Christopher Lewis

    Christopher Lewis came to Reconcile after being kicked out of school for fights and combating a drug habit. He told us that Reconcile gave him a sense of responsibility, “I realized that the world keeps moving and I can't just stay put.  My mom can't do it for me, my family can't do it for me, I have to do it for myself."

    Sometimes it is the small things that make all the difference.  Michael Smith, a 20-year-old participant in the program, told me about the self-confidence he gained just by wearing a professional uniform.  He started to tear up as he talked about his nine younger siblings, who had been through so much, being proud of him as he left home dressed for work.  Smith experienced family drug use, witnessed neighborhood violence and has been forced to move six times since returning to the city following Hurricane Katrina.  He came to Reconcile after dropping out of school as a junior and struggling to maintain employment.

    Nearing the end of Reconcile’s program, his peers hail him as a natural leader in the restaurant.  Most importantly, Michael has set an example for his siblings and his community.

    Doris Sylvan

    “Reconcile taught me the skills to get a job and keep a job,” said  Doris Sylvan, a 19-year-old single mother who graduated from Reconcile’s program and now works there mentoring other students while attending community college.  “There need to be more programs like this.”

    Well, here at the White House, we agree with Doris.   There need to be more programs like Café Reconcile, not just in New Orleans, but across the country.  All across the nation, people are finding solutions to society’s most intractable problems, like the dropout rate, childhood obesity, persistent poverty, or homelessness.  These innovators are breaking through bureaucratic barriers and reaching people in need in ways that no government program could.  We think that these hidden gems should be identified and their solutions replicated in  more communities, but that’s easier said than done.

    Let’s take the case of Café Reconcile. The nonprofit is planning a big expansion that will include a catering business, a family learning center, and business accelerator. In order to achieve that growth, the organization needs a few things.  It needs additional staff, new equipment and renovated space – or what we call “overhead costs” to expand its operations.

    These  resources are often the hardest funds to raise from foundations and private donors.  Reconcile needs to be able to prove to potential funders that it is having an impact by showing, for instance, that their students go on to get their GEDs and keep jobs.  Proving that impact takes expertise and resources that are also hard to come by for small community groups.  Finally, Reconcile needs technical expertise to help them continually improve their model and help more kids.

    We think that the government has an important but limited role in helping groups like Café Reconcile take the next step. 

    That’s why the President has established a Social Innovation Fund.  Run out of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Social Innovation Fund will provide the growth capital that is largely lacking in the philanthropic sector.

    This fund will invest in programs we know are high-impact  and help them grow to other communities around the country.  This is a new role for government.   Instead of simply funding services year after year, the President believes government can play a more dynamic role by seeking out creative, results-oriented programs and serving as a catalyst for replicating those efforts.  That’s also why we are looking at other ways to promote capacity building among nonprofits, all the while having a dogged focus on impact and metrics.  We have to know that we are getting a good return on the investment of taxpayer dollars.

    This isn’t an idea that started with President Obama.  Scott Cowen and Mitch Landrieu have been on the front lines for years.  At Tulane, Cowen is working to train the next generation of innovators who are changing the way we solve problems. Tulane was selected by Ashoka, the world's leading network of social entrepreneurs, as a Changemaker Campus.  Landrieu created the nation’s first statewide Office of Social Entrepreneurship, which is looking to help promising nonprofits identify and leverage available resources.

    Lieutenant Governor Landrieu in his closing statements at Café Reconcile explained why Louisiana has become a hotbed of social entrepreneurship and why it matters for the rest of the country. “In the aftermath of Katrina, we are teaching the rest of the country how to deal with the problems of living in a great city.  We didn’t ask for this responsibility, but the truth is that the answers to America’s problems are coming from the streets of New Orleans.”

    That is true for innovative nonprofits all across the country.  The solutions to our great challenges may be being invented on the streets of Portland, Denver, Miami, or everywhere in between. Only New Orleans may be the only place where those solutions also come with Shrimp Ettoufee.  

     Melody Barnes is Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council

  • "You've Got to Believe" - Building the Cars of the Future in America

    Biden Fisker Three

    (Vice President Joe Biden announces that Fisker Automotive of Irvine, California will build plug-in electric sports cars at the shuttered GM plant in Wilmington, Delaware, Tuesday, October 27, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann) October 27, 2009. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

    The cars of the future are coming, and they will be built right here in the United States.  Vice President Joe Biden echoed that sentiment today as he announced that the former GM Boxwood Manufacturing Plant in Wilmington, Delaware was reopening for business.  With the help of the Administration, loans from the Department of Energy, commitment from the state of Delaware, and the dedication of the American workforce, Fisker Automotive will soon begin manufacturing long-range, plug-in, electric hybrid vehicles at the Boxwood Plant.  By 2014, the company plans to roll 75,000 to 100,000 plug-in, hybrid sedans off the assembly line each year.

    The excitement in the crowd today reminded us that American innovation and manufacturing built the automotive industry in the 20th century – now, we will rebuild and retool it during the 21st century in a more efficient, inventive, and environmentally friendly way.  As the Vice President said today:  “American innovators, American business, American labor has never let this country down when we've been given a fighting chance.  And today, this factory in Delaware, and the industry, are going to get back up off the mat.”

    The future is now and Americans are investing in the new automobile.  Not just the manufacturing, but all aspects of the supply chain—from engineering the battery to powering the cars, from building the materials needed for assembly to shipping the finished product all over the world.  As the Vice President said:  “Imagine an America that has freed itself from the grip of the oligarchs of oil by plugging their cars into a new electric grid of renewable energy based on wind and solar and geothermal.  Imagine a world where people pop the hood of their cars and they see stamped on the battery ‘Made in America.’"

    Soon, we won’t have to imagine. 

    Biden Fisker One

    (Vice President Joe Biden announces that Fisker Automotive of Irvine, California will build plug-in electric sports cars at the shuttered GM plant in Wilmington, Delaware, Tuesday, October 27, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann) October 27, 2009. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

    Biden Fisker Two

    Vice President Joe Biden announces that Fisker Automotive of Irvine, California will build plug-in electric sports cars at the shuttered GM plant in Wilmington, Delaware, Tuesday, October 27, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann October 27, 2009. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)


    Elizabeth Alexander is Press Secretary to the Vice President