From unprecedented gridlock to unprecedented problem solving

When future scholars write the history of this era, the words “unprecedented political gridlock” will almost surely appear. That’s an unfortunate truth, but it doesn’t have to be an enduring one. As the next Speaker of the House waits somewhere in the wings, and we look 15 months ahead to an election in which a new president and new members of Congress will take their seats at the governing table, we can start to shape a fresh narrative. Our hope is that this narrative revolves around the term “unprecedented problem solving.”

We don’t believe this is an overly idealistic or naïve hope, which is why we are today releasing Moving America Forward: Innovators Lead the Way to Unlocking America’s Potential, which proposes more than 35 actions that policymakers, including the next president, could take to support innovative problem solving and expand programs that are working. These ideas aren’t from left field. On the contrary, they are derived from the best examples of community-led change-making and bipartisan policymaking from the last eight years.

{mosads}That entire premise may sound counterintuitive, but it’s not. One of the least understood and most underappreciated stories of recent years is that real bipartisan groundwork has been laid for more efficient and results-oriented public programming; more energetic social innovation and entrepreneurship; and increased public-private collaboration on problem solving at the local level. Look no further than expanded national service programs, the galloping Pay for Success movement, new efforts around data and evidenced-based policymaking, passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, and progress towards reshaping and improving the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The moment of opportunity for advancing this progress and breaking down barriers to opportunity in America is real and it can best be understood against the backdrop of similar transformative moments in the past, including the bubble up of innovation and energy that led to the computing and information technology booms, the revolution in global health, and other advances. These world-changing movements were made possible by a mix of front-end private sector ingenuity and back-end public sector support. Similar forces are coalescing in the world of social problem solving.

For example, low-income children typically start school a year behind their more advantaged peers, a gap that many are never able to make up.  But organizations like Jumpstart for Young Children and Acelero Learning are making a big difference by increasing the kindergarten readiness of low-income preschool students.

Only one in ten low-income students graduates from college, leaving them unprepared for today’s economy. But organizations like College Possible are shifting that reality by augmenting school resources with AmeriCorps members who coach students through the college application process—nine out of ten low-income students served by College Possible not only make it to college, but are ten times more likely to graduate than their peers. 

One out of ten ex-offenders is rearrested within a year of release. Roca, which works to help the highest-risk young people break out of the incarceration cycle, is reconnecting people to education and work—nine out of ten ex-offenders they serve don’t reoffend and are employed two years after release. 

Students who have learning and attention issues or who have suffered from trauma early in their lives have been largely left behind in recent decades, even as heralded education reform efforts have plowed ahead. Now, organizations like Turnaround for Children and the Achievement Network are pointing the way towards a completely new approach to learning that could help not just marginalized students, but all students.

The leaders of these organizations and many others saw problems in their communities and found better ways to solve them, and our political and policy leaders need to do more to help these ideas spread, scale, and flourish. Here a few ideas to start:

  • Develop a cross-agency R&D Innovation Lab to identify and invest in promising social solutions and rapidly test new approaches to determine effectiveness.  
  • Scale successful Pay for Success programs, expand the approach to new focus areas, and remove government barriers and create incentives to spur outcomes-based policy.  
  • Support tax policies that incentivize private sector employers to provide meaningful work experience for unemployed youth.
  • Push through meaningful criminal justice system reform based on restorative models.

These and many other innovative ideas are included in our new problem solving agenda, which is backed by America Forward’s 70 organizational members in communities across the country.  

It is time to activate America’s social innovators – the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the organizations that get things done in their communities, the people who want to make a difference, the businesses that provide jobs and are willing to work with communities to solve problems. We truly have the opportunity to kick off a new era of unprecedented problem solving. Given that millions of lives and livelihoods are at stake, what are we waiting for? 

Barrett is policy director at America Forward. Sagawa is senior policy adviser for America Forward.


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