In praise of big government: The Ford Foundation's Innovations in Government Awards

By Daniel T. Oliver
web posted November 15, 1999

At a luncheon ceremony last month in Washington, D.C., the Ford Foundation announced the names of 10 government programs that will receive $100,000 each as part of the foundation's annual Innovations in American Government Awards program. But do these programs represent true innovation, or are they little more than creative examples of big government?

Since 1986, the $11.4-billion New York City-based Ford Foundation, the third largest private grantmaking foundation in America, has awarded $15.9 million to 255 government programs that, in foundation president Susan V. Berresford's words, "provide continuing examples of government as a creative force, applying effective solutions to real problems."

Approximately 1,500 local, state and federal programs apply each year for the Ford Foundation's Innovations in American Government Awards. According to the foundation, these applicants are engaged in every type of government service: "administration and management; arts and cultural policy; communication information policy; criminal justice and courts; education; environment; health; housing; job training and placement; open space and recreation; public finance; public safety; public works and infrastructure; social services; substance abuse treatment and prevention."

The grant program is administered by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in partnership with the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Excellence in Government, a Ford Foundation grant recipient that "works to improve the performance of American government and government's place in the lives and esteem of American citizens." In addition to the Ford Foundation, several corporations and grantmakers fund the Council's activities.

Each year 25 local, state and federal program finalists receive awards of $20,000, and ten winners receive additional awards of $80,000 to help replicate their work in other government agencies. Since 1986, awards have been given to 135 Innovations winners and 120 finalists. (Finalists did not begin receiving awards until 1992. Also, there were no awards in 1989.)

A committee of public policy experts and former government officials, including former mayors and Members of Congress, select the winners. David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, chairs the committee.

Good Government?

On the surface, the Innovations in American Government program appears to be nothing more than an effort to promote "good government" — a worthy objective that most anyone would support. In fact, however, it is more an effort to shape public opinion about big government.

The Council for Excellence in Government worries that Americans' trust in government has declined dramatically in recent decades. In an article entitled "Why Americans Should Trust Government Now," Council president Patricia McGinnis, former deputy associate director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Jimmy Carter, notes that in 1994 only 21 percent of Americans trusted the federal government "to do the right thing most of the time." Public trust was at 75 percent in the 1960s.

Why should this be cause for concern? The Council believes that declining trust in government may result in declining willingness to pay for big government. In a 1997 book entitled Why People Don't Trust Government, the Council says that "without confidence in government, the public is less willing to provide... ‘critical resources' of support," i.e., tax revenues.

Similarly, Susan Berresford worries that "constant criticism of gov-ernment's failures... results in a spiral of pessimism and cynicism that may ultimately impede citizens' political participation as well as taxpayers' willingness to support [government]." In fact, "It was partly in response to this negativism that the [Ford] Foundation established the Innovations in American Government Awards program in 1986."

Any government program may apply for an Innovations Award. Indeed, many awards have gone to programs that are arguably unnecessary. This suggests a tacit approval of virtually everything the government does today. As the list on page 6 shows, the Ford Foundation is one of the largest foundation supporters of liberal public-policy organizations —organizations that seek to maintain and expand an array of government programs. In 1998 it awarded $17.4 million to 23 liberal organizations listed in the Capital Research Cent-er's Guide to Nonprofit Advocacy and Policy Groups. But it gave only one grant of $197,000 to a moderately conservative group.

Questionable Programs

Federal, state and local governments provide hundreds of services that in many cases could be — or already are — provided at lower cost by businesses and nonprofit organizations. These include day-care, skating rinks, swimming pools, camping grounds, pest control, marinas, arts programs, television and radio stations and books on everything from accounting to the weather.

As a list of winners, many of the $100,000 award winners are government programs that could be privatized. Certainly "protective services" such as law enforcement and court administration are necessary government functions, but only 13 percent of the awards have gone to such programs. The largest number, 38 — or 31 percent — have gone to "human services" programs such as job training, health care and pre-schools. These are services that businesses and nonprofits also provide. Whether such "community services" as "rural development" and "recreation" should be provided by government is debatable.

Recipients in the "management and governance" category include questionable government arts programs. For example, Block 37, a 1997 winner, is an arts center in Chicago funded by federal, state and local funds. Arts Incubator, a county-funded program in Arlington, Virginia, received an award in 1996.

Other awards have gone to programs in departments and agencies that impose heavy — and arguably unnecessary — regulatory costs on society. For example:

  • In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration received an award for cutting "average [drug] approval time... in half, to about 15 months." By charging user fees to pharmaceutical manufacturers to supplement its annual federal appropriation, "the FDA was able to add 600 staff members, improve equipment, and eliminate its backlog." However, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute, such fees "are nothing more than a tax on innovation.... [They] are an extraordinary burden on the hundreds of small biotechnology firms that are the source of many medical breakthroughs."

Moreover, the reduced approval time appears to be a charade. According to Cato, the FDA "has transferred many aspects of review from one part of the approval process to another and counts as ‘approval time' only the reduced part of the process." Experts conservatively estimate that FDA drug-approval delays have cost 200,000 lives over the last 30 years. Critics contend that private advisory organizations comprised of medical specialists and biomedical researchers could test the safety and effectiveness of new drugs faster and at lower cost than the FDA.

  • In 1995, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation won an award for shifting its focus from "an outdated mission — dam construction and management — to water conservation, environmental protection and restoration." The Ford Foundation apparently believes that such "reinvention" is preferable to outright elimination of an obsolete branch of government.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Consequence Assessment Tool Set received an award in 1996, despite the fact that FEMA has increasingly exaggerated the number of major disasters during its 20-year history, from 20 declared disasters in 1983 to 75 in 1996. To further expand its scope, FEMA has even reimbursed cities for the cost of ordinary winter snow removal.

Whether FEMA is needed is questionable. Long before FEMA, cities, states and entire regions of the country recovered from hundreds of natural and man-made disasters by relying on private insurance and charity. FEMA and other federal agencies increasingly supplant these private-sector approaches and now cover one-third the cost of recovery from a typical disaster.

  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) Fast Track Product Recall Program received an award in 1998. Critics contend that private organizations, such as Underwriters Laboratories, can ensure consumer product safety more effectively and at lower cost. They also argue that harm caused by unsafe products can be adequately handled through traditional tort law.

Innovative or Mundane?

Several finalists won awards this year for their use of the Internet and computer technology. For example:

  • The Largo, Florida Police Depart-ment's Largo Domestic Violence Internet Program uses a secure Internet site to post information on alleged perpetrators of domestic violence. Since the program began in 1996, prosecutors, judges and "victim advocates" have used the information to increase prosecution rates from 16 to 50 percent. The Largo police department did not respond to a written request for information on whether the incidence of domestic violence in Largo is decreasing.
  • Pittsburgh's Electronic Bond Bidding Initiative has saved the city $1 million by obtaining seven winning maturity-to-maturity (MBM) bids against simultaneous all-or-nothing (AON) bids. While "the level of savings is not large at this time... Pittsburgh seems to have started a trend" that other cities may follow.
  • The state of Florida has begun posting information from its Environmental Performance Measuring System (EPMS) on the Internet. Through the Secretary's Quarterly Performance Report, the EPMS "provides timely information to legislators, decision-makers and the public [on] activities, compliance rates and outcomes for air and water quality, habitat conservation, solid and hazardous waste management and public drinking water systems."
  • The U.S. Department of Agricul-ture's Agricultural Marketing Service recently created a Rulemaking for Organic Food Standards Program, allowing the public to read about and comment on proposed regulatory rules via the Internet.
  • In 1994, the U.S. Department of Defense began using the Internet to sell surplus military equipment and property to nonprofit organizations and other government agencies. It says that "users can view pictures of items and can search the database for specific items.... Some users can electronically place an order."
  • OK-First, a severe weather reporting system in Oklahoma, "allows emergency management officials to inform people of weather conditions in real time [Doppler radar].... By giving [officials] up-to-the-minute data, they can make critical decisions in bad weather or emergency situations that ultimately save lives."
  • The Centers for Disease Control recently created the PulseNet system, "a nationwide network of public health laboratories that electronically track, or ‘fingerprint,' foodborne bacteria by their DNA. This facilitates faster detection of foodborne disease outbreaks and may lead to the recall of contaminated food."
  • San Diego's Sewer/Water Infrastructure Management (SWIMpen) Field Computing System stores records of the city's water and sewer infrastructure. Maintenance crews use small hand-held computers with geographic-information and global-positioning systems to locate areas that need repair.

While the Ford Foundation may consider these uses of the Internet and computer technology "innovative," they are not particularly remarkable. Just as businesses and individuals are using the Internet and computers to increase efficiency and cut costs, government should be expected to do so as a matter of course to enhance law enforcement, sell bonds, make information more readily available to the public and the like.

As another example of such "innovation," the city of Farmers Branch, Texas received an award for returning surplus tax revenues to property owners. Although this is a rare action worthy of praise and emulation, taxpayers should expect such treatment. The Ford Foundation calls it a "creative and innovative solution."

Other Questionable Programs

Awards have gone to other questionable programs. For example:

  • In 1995, the U.S. Air Force's Aerospace Guidance and Metrology Center received an award for largely eliminating the use of "environmentally damaging... ozone-depleting chemicals" (i.e., chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs) to clean its equipment, switching to detergent and water instead. Yet there is no clear evidence that CFCs have caused significant worldwide ozone depletion. Moreover, no strong evidence shows that any depletion that may have occurred is permanent or a serious threat to life.
  • This year, Maryland's politically controversial Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Program received an award. Created by Governor Parris Glendening in 1997, it provides state grants, loans and tax cuts to homebuyers and small businesses to encourage development in urbanized areas. As the July issue of Foundation Watch explained, "smart growth" essentially seeks to limit suburban growth and force more Americans to live in congested urban areas — a policy most Americans oppose.
  • The Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds also received an award this year, despite the fact that to date it has accomplished nothing significant. Oregon recently experienced a significant decline in salmon populations due to development, pollution, timber harvesting and over-fishing. According to the Ford Foundation, "In 1996, for the first time, federal, state and local government agencies in the State of Oregon started working together to attack [the] problem... of conflicting policies, jurisdictions and laws... to restore wild salmon and water quality."

Yet the plan may turn out to be nothing more than a million-dollar boondoggle. Salmon stocks have not begun to recover. Moreover, in 1998 three independent panels of scientists commissioned by the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that the plan was severely inadequate.

Few Good Awards

To its credit, the Ford Foundation has bestowed a small number of good awards that have reduced governments' operating costs. These include:

  • A 1988 award to San Diego's Single Room Occupancy Residential Hotel Program, which reformed zoning and building-code laws to allow construction and renovation of thousands of units of low-income private rental housing.
  • A 1995 award to Indianapolis's Competition and Costing Program, which allows city employees to bid against private businesses to provide trash collection, road repairs and other services. The program has decreased the city's non-public safety workforce by one-third and resulted in modest savings.
  • An award this year to Wisconsin's W-2 Program, which has reduced state welfare rolls by 76 percent. W-2 participants are required to work while receiving health care, child care, transportation assistance and other benefits.
  • Another award this year to Philadelphia's Behavioral Health System, which integrates the city's mental-health and substance-abuse services as well as local, state and federal funding streams. During its first year, the program saved $21 million from a $500 million budget (four percent), which has been reinvested to provide additional services.
  • Another award this year to the Texas School Performance Review, a program that audits public schools and suggests ways to improve their management. Since 1991, 30 school districts have been audited, resulting in savings of $85 million.

Out of Step

Improving the quality of American government is certainly an admirable goal. But at a time when governments around the world are privatizing and downsizing, a program that bestows awards on every type of federal, state and local government program — without questioning the need for those programs — seems out of touch with real innovations in government. In this sense, the Innovations in American Government Awards do not promote "good government" so much as they promote "good big government."

Ford Foundation president Susan Berresford believes that "a decade of Innovations award winners and finalists provides ample evidence that government often works well and creatively." Yet, ironically, she acknowledges that "government is constantly on the defensive because many peo-ple do experience ineffective government programs." The Council for Excellence in Government worries that "today, skepticism of government outweighs confidence. It has begun to turn into cynicism. This is dangerous for any democratic system."

It could be argued, however, that such skepticism is both well-deserved and healthy. It may pose a threat only to a government that has grown too large and must be scaled back.

Federal, state and local governments now appropriate more than half the new wealth created in the private sector each year and spend a combined $2.6 trillion annually. Federal regulations cost the private sector another $500 billion annually. Yet even if today's massive government operated at peak efficiency, most Americans would probably still oppose it simply because of its sheer size and power.

A 1995 Gallup poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe "the federal government has become so large and powerful that it poses a threat to the rights and freedom of ordinary citizens." Another 1995 poll found that nearly 70 percent of Americans prefer "a smaller government with fewer services" than a "larger government with many services." That was up from 49 percent in 1984 and 60 percent in 1993.

Despite the hopes of the Ford Foundation, it is unlikely that the Innovations Awards will do anything significant to remedy Americans' mistrust of big government. Perhaps that's a good thing.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Capitol Research Centre.

Current Issue

Archive Main | 1999

E-mail ESR



1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.