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We May Fail

Three years ago I sat at table with staff from several of the country’s largest philanthropic institutions—the kinds with endowments in the many billions. As the light glinted off the heavy oak table, everyone gathered there went around the room explaining how we were “diversifying our investments away from federal policymaking.” Basically, that we were betting that federal policymaking was no longer the best route to tackling many of the diverse problems—climate change, nuclear weapons, failing schools, and so on—that we were all trying so hard to solve.

As it turns out, the organizations represented around that table were ahead of the curve when it comes to decision-makers and civic institutions, most of whom haven’t yet caught up to the reality that federal policymaking isn’t working. Meanwhile, the average person is well aware that something is very wrong. We are in the midst of a period of historically low regard for what government can accomplish. Congressional squabbles over insignificant political fights make the news while we in California run out of water, parents worry about their children’s education, and the gap in wealth widens by the day.

At New America, we see that the status quo isn’t working and so we’re adopting a bold experiment to remake ourselves into the kind of organization that can use new methods to solve the public problems that need solving. Instead of focusing solely on making federal policy, we’re devising ways to tap into the powerful energy and change already bubbling up in cities and counties around the country. We’re expanding our network from Washington, DC and New York—starting in San Francisco, and then and then a host of smaller cities.

Expanding our network will allow us to showcase for bigger audiences what is working in cities outside the corridors of power and to get ordinary people – the same ones who know something’s gone wrong in government – excited about finding workable solutions to problems that affect their lives. We want to find the brightest minds already focused on solving problems in their communities and show them how they can scale by better understanding how to partner with government. By giving them the tools to implement their ideas and opening avenues to scale their solutions nationwide, we hope to inject start-up style thinking into the halls of government with the goal of changing how the muddy slog works.

As broken as the current system of federal policymaking is, it’s also filled with world-class policy experts and decision-makers who want to find a way forward and are ready to act. We want to connect them with the best social innovators and their new ideas. We know that while many socially-oriented start-ups originate and thrive locally, they can only scale if they understand how to engage with government. And we believe we can be the bridge between these two critically important groups.

That’s why we are seeking out the best social problem-solvers in California to connect them with our diverse teams of policy experts and expose them to the political realities they’ll need to navigate to bring their innovations to wider audiences. It’s our hope that after two or three years we’ll have built a community of public problem-solvers in several cities around the country. Together we’ll have a network of current and past change-makers who can learn from and draw on each other as a visible force for social good that embraces technology and new thinking.

Why begin this experiment in San Francisco? We’re starting here because of the bold new ideas emerging across a range of sectors. California has been the birthplace of the household names that upended the way we live in the twentieth century – Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Intel and Apple – and are still mainstays as innovators. And Google, Facebook, and Tesla—the newer kids on the block—are changing entrenched ideas about everything from big data to big oil, which is paving the way to even more disruptive technologies in the process.

This culture of rapid development, testing, iterating and then doing everything possible to find wide adoption with products is applicable to how we govern and legislate. And these approaches have already shown some success tackling thorny social problems.

Take Daniel Lurie, who founded the Tipping Point Community. Daniel saw that low-income families weren’t getting access to the most effective services to break the cycle of poverty. So he created Tipping Point to create, test and refine new approaches to fighting poverty. (Their mantra? Invest, measure, improve, repeat.) Instead of being daunted by the interconnected problems of labor, finance, health, and education that keep people in poverty, Daniel and the Tipping Point have helped thousands of people in the San Francisco Bay Area find homes, go to college, find jobs, and get high quality medical care, all while fiercely fighting the idea that we can’t do anything to tackle tough social problems.

Even local governments in California are embracing new methods. The San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Innovation has created waves nationally by opening city data for public use. 18F, the federal government’s digital services agency, has a local office, and agencies across the federal government are opening offices in Silicon Valley to try and capture some of its ideas and talent.

In addition to being inspired by these Californians’ pragmatic approaches to solving problems, we’re also excited to expand the New America network to San Francisco because California’s start-up culture has dramatically popularized what we see as a critical component to success in addressing entrenched social problems: the benefits of learning from failure. And while the idea of failing forward has become run-of-the-mill in Silicon Valley, the social sector as a whole lags behind in its ability and willingness to learn from failures of all sizes. Imagine if Tipping Point was scaled nationwide. How many communities and people could be helped? The only way we can find out is to try it.

We believe we can drastically improve government and policymaking by trying new things and committing to be transparent about our successes and our failures. This kind of approach will help New America on its way to becoming a truly civic enterprise. But it’s not as if we’re giving up our roots as a think tank. In fact, tapping into pragmatic problem solving has been what New America has always done. We were founded by policy experts and journalists who believed that we could find the minds and foster the debates needed to guide American renewal in an era of profound, exhilarating, but often threatening change. We have heeded that call, helping to change American attitudes and policy in myriad ways: in our groundbreaking work to foster an open internet while being mindful of the ways that data can be a vehicle for discrimination, to push forward cross-cutting policy analysis about how we can support families in all their forms and Millennials as they struggle to come into their own as citizens, and to better empower all students—from pre-K to lifelong learners—to enter classrooms that are more equitable and inspiring places.

We may come up short in making things better. We may pick the wrong method or back the wrong ideas. And that’s okay with us, because we’ll take what we learn and use it to improve. We are heeding the advice of the growing group of changemakers who are advocating that non-profits embrace real risk-taking; that we learn from our failures and successes.

If you believe, as we do, that we can make a better government and that we can solve thorny social problems—or even if you’re just curious about what we’ve started, then I ask that you help pitch in and get involved with New America California. Follow our Medium channel. Come to an event in San Francisco. Get excited by an idea we put out into the world and share it with your neighbors.

Let’s take what we can learn from business entrepreneurs and social innovators and apply it: iterate, scale, and do it over and over again until we have a government that runs with the imagination and risk-taking acumen of a start-up and the hard-earned knowledge of experts. Only then can we begin to transform federal policymaking from a quagmire of problems into a place to create solutions.


Megan Garcia is Senior Fellow & Director of New America CA. She explores how the work of New America’s programs links to exciting local approaches to problem solving on the west coast.