May 28, 2009

White House Officials Discuss Plans for Social-Innovation Office

The new White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation was created without much fanfare. In fact, even though it has been operating for several months, it has never been formally unveiled.

But the office, set up to promote creative and effective ways to tackle social problems, is slowly starting to emerge as a public entity. The White House briefly outlined its goals in a statement last month to announce that the president was proposing $50-million in his 2010 budget for a social-innovation fund. And after months of working behind the scenes, White House officials have started to speak publicly about the office’s plans.

Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Sonal Shah, who heads the new office, told The Chronicle the office is giving priority to working with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that runs national-service programs, to set up the social-innovation fund.

The money, which was authorized by the national-service law enacted in April, will help nonprofit groups expand successful programs, or set up promising new ones, with a heavy emphasis on measuring results. The projects will require matching money from private sources or local governments.

While the White House is looking for “new ideas” and “new models,” Ms. Barnes said that traditional charities should not feel excluded by the talk of innovation. “Innovation isn’t necessarily about new or old in terms of new groups or old groups,” she said. “It’s about impact and effectiveness.”

In addition to getting the social-innovation fund to work, the White House office is coordinating with other agencies on ways to promote entrepreneurial social projects, the two officials said. For example, it is working closely with the Education Department, which won $650-million in federal economic-stimulus money for its Invest in What Works and Innovation Fund.

To carry out the “civic participation” part of its name, the office is exploring ways to use the White House Web site to encourage people to get involved in solving social problems. It is also working with the White House Office of Public Engagement and others to encourage people to volunteer over the summer.

The social-innovation office is set up under the Domestic Policy Council, the body that coordinates domestic policy making in the White House, and has four employees: Ms. Shah, former head of global development at, the seach-engine company’s philanthropic arm; Michele Jolin, former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank; Carlos Monje, a former Obama campaign worker who also worked in Mr. Obama’s Senate office; and Charles D. Anderson, a former Obama campaign worker who just graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School. Howard W. Buffett, a grandson of Warren Buffett, the investor and philanthropist, worked on an Obama administration transition group that paved the way for the White House office. He is an unpaid adviser on the staff.

Following are excerpts from The Chronicle’s interview with Ms. Barnes and Ms. Shah:

Q: The White House says it wants to “catalyze partnerships between the government and nonprofits, businesses, and philanthropists.” How will that work?

A: Ms. Barnes: This fits into the president’s larger goals of doing business in a different way in Washington, the idea that every good idea does not come from government. Government should be effective and efficient and should handle its responsibilities well, but it also should be a partner with the philanthropic and business communities and the social-entrepreneurial community to address our largest challenges and meet those goals, whether it’s health care or education, energy, housing, the list goes on and on. This office is one of the key engines in the administration to make sure we’re engaging with those communities, that we are brainstorming around those ideas, that we’re looking for ways to take the idea from idea to fruition.

Q: The office does not have the budget to award grants. How do you see your role? As a bully pulpit?

A: Ms. Barnes: We’re more than a bully pulpit. There are four staff people, several of them with significant experience in this area. We’ve got some good and experienced minds working on this. They’re also working with the staff in the cabinet agencies and the departments to leverage all of our resources as we’re reaching out and working with business and philanthropy.

Ms. Shah: We’re also a coordinating body, so we can bring different groups together from different agencies. We can bring someone from health care, someone from the social-innovation fund, and someone from education together to have a conversation about doing things similarly across the board and working across agencies.

As we see ideas that may not necessarily fit into one agency or another, we can also help direct and create partnerships that might not otherwise have existed. A lot of the foundations will come here and we’ll know about projects or programs taking place in different agencies and being able to link them up with the right groups that are working on it and figuring out ways that partnerships can happen.

Q: Will you have a formal structure—an advisory board, for example?

A: Ms. Barnes: We are investigating and thinking about that now and engaging with our senior colleagues here. But we already have had so many meetings and conversations with the philanthropic and business and NGO [nongovernmental organization] community that we’re getting great ideas.

Q: Are you planning any kind of formal unveiling of this office?

A: Ms. Shah: What we wanted to do, to be fair, is accomplish a few things and then talk about how the social-innovation fund is working. We didn’t just want to announce an office and not have anything backing it. We’ve been working away; the national-service legislation is a big part of what we were working on, we’re working on a few things for the summer. As those pieces come together, you’ll see more discussion about it.

Q: What are your immediate priorities?

A: Ms. Shah: We’ll be focusing on the social-innovation fund, which we believe is critical for setting a precedent for other types of programs. We’ll be working closely with our colleagues in various agencies to see if there are ways to create parallel funds or at least to harmonize some of our discussions.

Q: How do you define “innovative”? Can a traditional charity qualify?

A: Ms. Barnes: Often when there’s change, people believe we are leaving what’s been working over time behind. The idea is to add capacity and to bring new ideas and new people and new models to the fore and to the task of addressing these big challenges. This shouldn’t be seen as the White House turning its back on the more traditional allies and moving on to something new. An organization that’s been around for 80 years can have an innovative idea, an idea that will have significant impact and build capacity.

Q: What relationship does this office have with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships?

A: Ms. Barnes: That office is also a part of the Domestic Policy Council. The [two offices] are housed together and are two of the leading DPC offices in terms of being outward-facing and engaging actively and almost daily with the community outside, beyond the government. Sonal and Joshua [DuBois, head of the faith-based office] and their staffs work very closely together.

Q: How are you using the Web to encourage civic participation?

A: Ms. Shah: We work very closely with our new-media colleagues at the White House about how we can continuously ask and take in input on ideas that we may have or [on] what people are doing. For example, when the president went to Missouri to give his speech a few weeks back, we asked on the White House Web page what people were doing in their communities and how they’re making a difference in service. We’ll be doing some of that even over the next few months.

Q: What happened at the recent meeting in Washington to discuss summer volunteer projects?

A: Ms. Shah: The first lady met with over 350 organizations to talk about her passion, which is that service is critical. We’ll have more announcements coming out in the next few weeks. This was the first outreach meeting to talk about why it’s important to learn about what some of the challenges have been in the past and to move forward in terms of how do we engage more effectively with the community, all sectors of the community­­­—the service sector, nontraditional players, faith-based groups, bringing them all together. What we saw that was fascinating was the number of people that had never talked together before talking to each other about things they could leverage from each other.

Q: Will you be involved with state and international social-innovation projects?

A: Ms. Shah: We have been talking to quite a few of the states. We’re talking to our colleagues about the international piece also, both the Peace Corps, [the U.S. Agency for International Development], and others. We are in the process of figuring out how to work together on that, too. We believe service is service whether it’s in the U.S. or going to serve overseas.

Q: Will you be working with for-profit companies that have social missions? A: Ms. Shah: [We will] keep the social-mission for-profit community as an ongoing discussion to figure out what our role might be there, because we need to be sure we’re coordinating with our colleagues at [the Department of] Commerce and at [the Small Business Administration] and other agencies. I think we’ll keep that as a discussion we’d like to move forward with, but in the short term we have a fairly full agenda.