04 The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, United States
The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, United States
Develop Government Capacity for Action
Geography: United States
Toolkit step: Develop Government Capacity for Action
In Brief: The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (SICP) is an entity within the United States’ executive branch of government that advises the US President and Executive Office on policies that encourage collaboration and innovation around such significant national challenges as poverty and education. The Office’s policy priorities include promoting service and volunteerism, increasing investment in new solutions with demonstrated outcomes and encouraging the formation of cross-sector partnerships. The Office’s focus on community-based solutions draws on a presidential mandate based on the belief that government can best support social innovation by finding and scaling existing solutions.
For Policy-makers considering implementing a similar advisory office, SICP provides the following considerations for implementation:
- Place policy offices where champions already exist
- Create opportunity for creativity and innovation by cutting across existing sectors and silos, being mindful of bureaucratic barriers
- Be politically astute and willing to make adjustments as long as core tenets are not compromised
Policy Goals and Development
The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (SICP) was first proposed as the Office of Social Innovation in 2007 by staff at the Center for American Progress (CAP), an independent think tank focused on progressive ideas. The idea for developing SICP reflected an understanding by CAP staff that, globally, social entrepreneurs who engage with policy-makers are more successful than those who do not. The goal behind developing the Office of Social Innovation was to create a high-profile entity within the federal government to foster a policy environment that supports social innovation, social entrepreneurship and solutions to intractable social problems “without creating a new bureaucracy that runs counter to the culture of social innovation and entrepreneurship”.1
The proposal for an Office of Social Innovation explicitly called for the office to be created within the White House to “leverage the president’s platform to highlight the importance of relying on social entrepreneurs and nonprofits to solve social problems where both the private sector and government have failed”, at the same time elevating non-profit leaders’ voices in public policy debates.2
The idea for SICP pre-dated the 2008 presidential campaign but gained traction during the run-up to the election, fuelled by the interest that then-candidate Barack Obama had in social innovation and community-based solutions. The transition of the Office into reality was due in no small part to the influence of a number of prominent CAP staff who served on the presidential transition team and subsequently in staff positions with the Obama White House. The creation of SICP was officially announced by the White House on 5 May 2009.3
In response to a variety of political realities, the Office was reconceptualized to include a civic participation agenda alongside social innovation, focusing on engaging Americans in volunteer and other service opportunities. The broadening of focus resulted from a combination of President Obama’s interest in promoting public service, staff capacity constraints and the opportunity to leverage Congressional momentum behind the Serve America Act, one of the first bills to pass under the Obama administration, which deals directly with volunteerism and civic participation.
The Office resides within the Domestic Policy Council, an entity within the White House Executive Office. SICP is led by a dedicated commissioned officer, a high profile staff classification within the White House. Both its White House position and its high profile leadership lend SICP added stature within the government and serve in theory as a signal of the importance of SICP’s agenda. Importantly, however, SICP is not a permanent office; created at the bequest of President Obama, it is an entity that came into being by executive order rather than through legislation, such that without continued presidential support SICP could disappear in future administrations.
Policy in Action
The Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation functions as a policy advisor to the US President. As with other White House offices, the work that SICP helps to develop is either carried out by federal agencies or written into legislation and passed by Congress (for example Program-Related Investment regulation revision and the Social Innovation Fund, respectively). The Office also has the power to advise the US President on policies and programmes, and to liaise within the federal government and with a broad stakeholder community, but SICP is not primarily involved in managing, implementing or lobbying for legislation or new projects.
When initially conceived by staff at the CAP, SICP’s goals focused exclusively on growing social enterprise and innovation by developing funding opportunities, nurturing cross-sector partnerships and exploring regulatory barriers. Since implementation, its goals have expanded to include civic participation and engaging Americans in volunteerism. As a result, SICP organizes its efforts around the following three areas of work:
- Encouraging public service through the development of new and the expansion of existing public volunteer programmes, partnerships and public service opportunities in communities throughout the United States
- Increasing investment in social innovation, including hosting gatherings and providing policy advocacy around tax reform, encouraging transparency in corporations and non-profit organizations, supporting impact evaluation efforts, supporting the better utilization of public funds and promoting policies that leverage private capital for social purpose. Part of this work comprised launching the Social Innovation Fund (see the “SICP on the Ground” box in this section)
- Exploring public-private partnerships as a way to encourage social innovation, including work on the Social Innovation Fund, agency-led public service programmes and sector-specific issues like the Educate to Innovate programme that supports science, technology, engineering and mathematics education
The Office views social innovation as solving old problems in new ways, no matter where the idea originates. It is less concerned with definitional agreement on what social innovation means, focusing instead on supporting and highlighting work and organizations – whether private or public, for-profit or non-profit – that have scalable solutions to such pressing problems in the public interest as unemployment, education, and health, among others.
Since no institutional mandate for social innovation exists, despite its White House location, SICP depends on staff in other agencies and throughout the federal government to implement the social innovation policy agenda. Other social innovation policies, like the programmes SICP helps to put in place, may have longer staying power than SICP if the political winds shift, particularly if they have garnered legislative approval. It is important to note, however, that in politically challenging times, legislation may not be a viable route.
Impact to Date
To date, the Office has primarily leveraged the convening power of the White House to organize cross-sector events focused on social innovation, supported the implementation of related policies across the federal government, and assisted in the development of policies that support non-profit organizations and social enterprises. Highlights of SICP’s work include:
- Developing a US$ 50 million Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service to leverage US$ 350 million in private money in support of social innovation4
- Advising a US$ 650 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund at the Department of Education5
- Supporting an interagency working group on impact evaluation6
- Co-hosting a conference on using prizes and challenges to spur innovation7
- Advising on the development of agency-led innovation challenges such as the Department of Commerce’s i6 Challenge and NASA’s Innovation Incubator Initiative8
The Office has additionally supported innovation in the private investment space by encouraging the adoption of Pay for Success bonds (the US equivalent of social impact bonds), contributing to the revision of US Program-Related Investment regulation and discussing the use of bonds to support infrastructure development.
Policy Recommendations for Scaling Social Innovation
The Office elevates the social innovation discussion and agenda of social entrepreneurs within the US government. It was specifically designed to sit within the White House as a way of lending legitimacy and importance to social innovation conversations without saddling conversations with bureaucratic constraints that could stifle innovation or be politically infeasible. Policy-makers or stakeholders considering implementing a policy advisory office within government could consider the following:
Place policy offices where champions already exist
The implementation of SICP was heavily reliant on the existence of key decision-makers who cared about the idea, including the US President. Creating a policy office, particularly within the executive branch, is difficult without key decision-makers to support it.
Create opportunity for creativity and innovation by cutting across existing sectors and silos, being mindful of bureaucratic barriers
Because SICP’s agenda does not fit squarely within existing social, financial or economic policy areas, it runs the risk of being overlooked. The freedom to have policy discussions with, for example, health, education and finance agencies can cultivate creativity and openness, but working with government staff whose roles are tied to existing bureaucracy can pose a challenge.
Be politically astute and willing to make adjustments as long as core tenets are not compromised
CAP staff members close to the development of the ideas behind SICP were strategically placed to follow through on the execution of these ideas as part of the presidential transition team, with a president who was amenable to the office’s underlying ideas. The incorporation of a civic participation agenda reflected pragmatic decision-making, solidifying SICP’s existence with minimal to no mission drift by incorporating one of the President’s priorities with a close enough conceptual alignment to allow the Office to pursue its goals while maintaining crucial presidential support.
SICP On the Ground
Social Innovation Fund
The Social Innovation Fund, a programme supported by the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, was established as part of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, signed into law by President Obama on 21 April 2009. Managed by the Corporation for National and Community Service and subject to Congressional appropriation, the US$ 50 million Social Innovation Fund provides grants to “grantmaking intermediaries” like community foundations that in turn provide matching grants to innovative, successful non-profit organizations in low-income communities. Both the intermediaries and their non-profit grantees are required to match funds they receive from the Social Innovation Fund dollar for dollar. Since inception, the Social Innovation Fund has leveraged US$ 350 million in additional private funds, supporting 201 non-profit organizations in 34 US states.9