Don’t call “government innovation” in California an oxymoron

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(image: Flickr/Nazir Amin)

When California Forward (CA Fwd) talks about the potential for innovation in government, we are often told, quite cynically, “that’s an oxymoron.”

But here’s some evidence. On Tuesday in the Capitol, the Committee on the Awards for Innovations in Higher Education outlined its plans for allocating $50 million to community colleges and universities that were already finding creative ways to accelerate completion of bachelor’s degrees.

Before describing the rules – which are the 2.0 version of any grant program the State has ever created – let’s point out that the program itself an innovation.

For decades the State has created grant and pilot programs – usually at this stage in the economic cycle, when revenue is flush and experimentation is deemed affordable.  For the most part, the programs provide temporary encouragement and modest measurable benefits. They seldom inspire changes to a system that discourages risk-taking and resists changes in how resources are allocated. And when the next recession delivers red ink, innovation is the first line item eliminated.

That’s why “oxymoron” is the typical response. Successful organizations, in times of stress, double down on innovation. Traditionally the State has zeroed it out.

So what’s new here?

For starters, this is an award to colleges and universities that within their existing authority and resources have found ways to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred, to increase the number of students who complete in four years, or to ease transfer among the campuses to accelerate completion.

This is not a grant offering funds for campuses that believe innovation is something you do with new money. This is a one-time award for being innovative, with the expectation the resources will be used to increase the pipeline so still more students can learn what they need to learn and get on with their professional lives.

Because the award is one-time, campuses will not be building programs that require sustained funding, but making improvements that allow them to do more with the same resources.

Brace yourself for the complaints. Why reward campuses that have figured it out rather than pouring resources into campuses that obviously need help doing so? Why not make the funding “permanent” so that campuses can grow programs and staff? Why not just allocate this money “fairly” on a per student basis?

Higher education is the end of the continuum where students have choices and where data is increasingly helping them to distinguish quality and identify campuses that have prioritized student needs over institutional needs. College and university students are the ones who directly bear the extra burden on transfer snafus and class schedules aligned with professor preferences rather than student preferences.

By every analysis, neither the state nor the students can afford a university system that costs this much and takes this long, and the Capitol is fresh out of answers that will work in Arcata and San Diego – and satisfy those stakeholders who define business as usual in the Capitol.

That’s what was so unusual about the Committee for Awards in Innovation in Higher Education, meeting in the capitol, discussing a new way to do business.

Applications from campuses (or collaborations of campuses) are due in January and awards will be made in March. CA Fwd urged the Committee to assertively take the next step – facilitating learning among the awardees, identifying how the barriers to innovation can be removed for all campuses, and carefully identifying how other campuses could learn from the innovators and replicate successes.

The Innovation Awards initiative has the potential to influence much more than the degree pipeline. It has the power to develop a new model for state leadership, new mechanisms for informing state policies, and a more beneficial relationship between state policymakers and public sector leaders working at the community and regional scales.


Jim Mayer

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