Stateline Story

States Vie For Innovation Awards

  • December 02, 2002
  • By Kathleen Murphy

Innovative state programs ranging from a trash-your-TV initiative to an effort to bring homeless teens in of the cold are competing for the Oscars of government prizes.

  • In Minnesota, you can take worn-out Sony TVs to a recycling collection point run by the manufacturer thanks to the state's Product Stewardship Program.
  • Wisconsin veterans can apply for healthcare benefits and home improvement loans at a traveling one-stop "supermarket" run by the state's I Owe You Campaign.
  • And Massachusetts' homeless teen parents and their children can get beds in a safe state shelter.  

The programs are among 31 state initiatives competing for an award for being the most innovative in American government. The awards are given annually by the Institute for Government Innovation at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government in conjunction with the Council for Excellence in Government.

Ninety-nine federal, state, and tribal semifinalists will be judged on novelty, effectiveness in addressing important problems, and the potential for replication by other government entities. In May 2003, five winners will each get a $100,000 grant to promote and replicate their innovative efforts.

In another awards competition, the Council of State Governments recently selected eight programs for being the most innovative. CSG's Innovations Awards Program honored programs such as Pennsylvania's eNotice Program, which gives e-mail notification of new environmental permit applications, and Texas' Child Support Interactive, which lets parents view their child support payment history online.

In the awards given by Harvard's Institute for Government Innovation, competing state programs range from Alaska's cruise ship initiative, which regulates the booming industry's pollution, to Missouri's Internet-based unemployment claims filing system. North Carolina's program for rating childcare and Virginia's effort to restore native oysters to coastal waters are also among the entrants.

But the Minnesota recycling program, Wisconsin's veterans supermarket, and Massachusetts' shelters for teen parents stand out for being trailblazers, said state officials running the programs.

Minnesota's Product Stewardship Program led carpet manufacturers to agree to a 10-year schedule of recycling, and the program is "changing the relationship between government, consumers and manufacturers, in having manufacturers take on more responsibility for their products," said Garth Hickle, state program team leader.

Minnesota officials are targeting producers of beverage containers, electronics, autos, and mercury-containing items for similar recycling agreements. Under the three-year-old program, Sony Corp. agreed to take back television sets headed for the landfill.

Andrew Schuster, public affairs officer for the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, said the state's I Owe You Campaign deserves an innovation award because, "It's unique. It's helping our veterans, and they have given so much."

At day-long fairs, Wisconsin veterans "can apply for state benefits and determine their eligibility on the spot," Schuster said. "Veterans may be too proud to apply for something. They walk away with a good feeling of at least starting the steps of getting the benefits they have coming."

The supermarkets have been held in Racine, Eau Claire and Greenbay, and have attracted thousands of veterans since they began in 2000.

Another prize-seeker lets Massachusetts teen parents get housing through the Teen Living Programs, the first in the nation to offer services for teen victims of domestic violence. Since 1995, the program has provided 102 beds, plus 13 emergency beds for teen parents who come in off the street looking for a night's shelter, said Paula Callahan, assistant director of special programs for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

As part of the program, Open Pantry , a community services group in Springfield, gives shelter to six teen mothers and eight children who are eligible for welfare. Mothers go to school while children receive day care. After school, moms participate in life skills workshops on good writing and healthy cooking. If the moms work, 30 percent of earnings go back to the program.

"The goal of the program is to teach them to be self-sufficient," said Nicole Lussier, program director for Open Pantry Community Services.

One of an estimated 2,500 teen parents on welfare in Massachusetts, Lydia Sanchez, 19, and her 3-week-old girl recently moved into Open Pantry's shelter.

Sanchez adheres to the shelter's 8 p.m. curfew, and says she's learned "how to keep my temper. But it's hard because there are a lot of girls in one house."

The shelter's staff has helped Sanchez make doctor's appointments and arrive on time. Sanchez says she plans to go back to school after a three-month maternity leave.

"They really help you here," Sanchez said. "It's a good program. You have your own privacy, your own room."