Development-in-a-Box at Home

Stephen DeAngelis

December 26, 2006

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., recently commented on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s innovative effort to help the city’s nearly 2 million citizens living below the poverty line to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty [“Bloomberg’s Brave Bet on Innovation,” 22 December 2006]. Bloomberg’s initiative embraces many of the characteristics contained in the Development-in-a-Box approach I promote, including public-private partnership. Dionne salutes Bloomberg for his efforts because government is normally risk-averse and, therefore, non-innovative. He writes:

“Because there is such a deep mistrust of government in so many quarters, officials are wary of trying new approaches, which are by definition unproved. Daring to innovate means risking failure. Failure generates bad headlines, even charges of scandal — and the strong possibility that the pioneering politician will lose the next election. But the failure to innovate only deepens public skepticism about government. Voters ask why government looks so slow, clunky and old-fashioned and can’t seem to change. Skepticism deepens, innovation becomes even more risky — and the cycle goes on. … But government failure is also a reality, and so is the aversion to risk-taking. What’s the way out?”

Rather than prescribe a systemic solution to the problem, Dionne (as noted above) points to Bloomberg’s innovative experiment.

“Bloomberg announced a new initiative to fight poverty, including a Center for Economic Opportunity and $150 million annually that would, among other things, provide incentives for the poor to stay in school, to build up their personal savings and to get preventive medical care. The mayor would also create an Office of Financial Empowerment to ‘educate, empower and protect workers with low incomes so they can make the best use of their financial resources.’ The poor often get ripped off by the unscrupulous. The fund includes $25 million raised privately — a signature approach for Bloomberg, a billionaire and a major private philanthropist — which will give the program more room to experiment. ‘When you do things with public money, you really are required to do things that have some proven track record and to focus on more conventional approaches,’ Bloomberg told a news conference. ‘But conventional approaches, as we know, have kept us in this vicious cycle’ — that phrase again — ‘of too many people not being able to work themselves out of poverty.’ Those who think Bloomberg is too liberal to be an honest-to-goodness Republican might notice that he also promised to ‘carefully monitor these new programs and hold them accountable for producing results — just as a business would. And if we find that a certain program isn’t making the grade, we will terminate its funding.’ There is no better way to win public support for government programs that work than to be serious about shutting down the ones that don’t.”

Bloomberg’s promise to hold programs accountable implies that standards and metrics must be used (one of Development-in-a-Box’s principal characteristics). The use of private money to complement government funding means that Bloomberg’s experiment will immediately foster a community of practice whose aim is to make the experiment succeed. Bloomberg will have to monitor the flow of money carefully. Nothing halts promising programs faster than corruption. He should also look for opportunities to automate some of the processes put in place so that they are fair, efficient, and effective. Automation permits audit trails to be generated for real-time and post-event analysis. Automation doesn’t mean that the human touch is removed from the process. In fact, by freeing individuals from doing mundane tasks, they have more time to focus on face-to-face service. Dionne concludes his column by encouraging Republicans and Democrats to work together to make the experiment work:

“Both parties would do well to embrace the spirit of Bloomberg’s initiative. Republicans desperately need to show that they take growing inequalities seriously and recognize that the new economy is leaving millions of Americans behind. Innovative programs that focus on helping the poor to save, to stay in school and to join the work force are exactly what Republicans should want to embrace. If their only domestic policy is tax cuts for the wealthy, Republicans will, and should, keep losing. In the wake of the handling of Hurricane Katrina, Republicans will also have to convince voters they respect government enough to demand that it perform competently. Democrats rightly believe that government has an obligation to help those left out. Providing health insurance coverage to all Americans, for example, will require a major government role. But Democrats need to show they are under no illusions that all government programs work splendidly. Believers in government have the greatest interest in proving that it can correct itself. Bloomberg likes to talk about government pursuing ‘thoughtful, practical and evidence-based strategies.’ Buzzwords? Sure. But after six years in which clubhouse politics produced ideologically driven policies that were neither practical nor evidence-based, they are buzzwords that should have a future in Washington.”

While I prefer “standards-based” to “evidence-based” strategies, that is more a semantical preference than a genuine difference in approach. Development-in-a-Box is a standards-based approach that embraces best practices — an approach that government programs need in order to ensure that taxpayer funds are wisely used. Bloomberg’s approach is more about investing in people than in programs, which is exactly the reason I like the Development-in-a-Box approach. The investment in programs is done up front, through the adoption of standards and automated rule sets. Once the approach is implemented, the focus immediately shifts to those it is meant to serve. I hope Bloomberg’s experiment gets the support it needs and that the results meet the Mayor’s expectations.