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Innovation lets state and local governments do more with less. Ford Foundation funds reward creative community programs

``Innovative government'' may seem like a contradiction in terms to some cynics. But throughout the country, state and local governments are proving that a little creativity and commitment can and does make a difference in meeting a community's needs.

In New York City, a coordinated case-management approach has meant more children returning to school after detention in the juvenile justice system.

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In Los Angeles County, a food distribution network sends donations from both private sources and the federal government to more than one million poor people in 45 cities.

The number of black children waiting to be adopted in Illinois has dropped dramatically, largely because of a partnership between the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and black churches in the state.

These are a few of the winners of the ``Innovations in State and Local Government Awards,'' a program of The Ford Foundation, along with the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Cash awards were given to 10 recipients yesterday, and 15 other programs were named as finalists.

``The 1,347 applicants confirm the original hypothesis that there is a lot of experimentation and innovation going on,'' says Walter Broadnax, director of the program and a lecturer at the Kennedy School. The winners range from a new ground-water management code hammered out by the state of Arizona, to a ``block nurse'' program bringing better home care to the elderly. The program was conceived by two St. Paul, Minn., neighbors who were both registered nurses.

Some of the innovation is clearly in response to the withdrawal of federal funds, as local governments struggle to do more with less, says Mr. Broadnax. But he adds that state and local governments have always had to be creative, in part because they are in closer proximity to the customer, the taxpayer. Many include partnerships between government, community-based programs, and businesses.

David Arnold of the Ford Foundation says the growth of federal programs during the '60s and '70s did mean states looked more to Washington. The loss of federal programs has caused a refocusing by state and local governments.

Does such an awards program prove that the Reagan administration philosophy of new federalism is working -- that decreased federal spending and programs will spark better efforts at the state and local level?

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``There are many areas in which the federal government plays a vital role,'' says Mr. Arnold. ``We need both.''

``For those deeply concerned about the federal withdrawal of funds, [that concern] is still legitimate,'' says Broadnax. On the other hand, he adds, state and local governments have made tremendous progress in the past 25 years in terms of their capacity to perform -- both fiscally and managerially.

In fact, federal funds play a part in many of the recognized programs. And several of the winners, such as Gordon Johnson, director of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which helps run the minority adoption program, says economic considerations were not the main reason the program was started.

In New York City, the Department of Juvenile Justice was looking for a way to do more for kids than detain them.

``We are changing the nature of detention in New York City,'' says Ellen Schall, commissioner of juvenile justice. The average age of the youths is between 14 and 15 years, and the most common charge is robbery. Under the new program, services are expanded for youths in detention, such as five and half hours of education daily and a health care system that includes dental, medical, and mental health components.

After a child returns home, case workers work directly with families, schools, and social welfare agencies to help the child. Before the program began three years ago, 47 percent of the youths leaving detention returned to school. The most recent figures, says Commissioner Schall, show that 85 percent go back to school.

The $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation will be used to extend the program, and to help disseminate the idea to other cities, says Schall.

Indeed, one of the criteria of the awards program was that the winners could serve as examples for similar efforts in other cities.

A companion research program at Harvard will look at the issue of what impedes, and what facilitates, the replication of such programs.

Were there common denominators among the programs? Arnold says that in almost all cases, the people involved not only came up with a new idea, but they had the level of commitment to see it through implementation, despite obstacles.

``New ideas don't take on a life of their own,'' says Arnold. ``It requires someone to stick with them.''

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