Jennifer Simonson, Star Tribune

Government innovators get rewarded

  • Article by: JAY KIEDROWSKI
  • January 6, 2013 - 4:23 PM

Government budgets are being cut across our nation. Yet citizens still want services. The good news is that innovation is occurring in local government to provide services in better and less expensive ways.

For the past six years, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, in partnership with the Association of Minnesota Counties, the League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota School Boards Association, has sponsored an awards program for local government to recognize innovations and disseminate the ideas so others can use them.

This year, the Bush Foundation got involved to energize the program by fostering more participation and offering a $25,000 prize for the best innovation of the year. As a result, there were more than a hundred applications.

Six cities, six counties and six schools from the metro and outstate areas have been selected as winners of this year's awards. In addition, one city, one county and one school were chosen to compete for the $25,000 grand prize.

Here are the three finalists:

1. Early college at Irondale High School

"In partnership with Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Irondale ... is the first school in Minnesota to offer a comprehensive early college program allowing students ... to earn a free two-year associate degree."

Many Minnesota high schools offer college courses to their students, but mostly to the better students. The program at Irondale (in the Mounds View school district) targets students in the 30th to 70th percentiles of the class. Often, these middle students have not received the preparation necessary to succeed in college programs, and often at Irondale they are the first in their families to attend college.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the program and praised it: "I love the innovation. I love the creativity. I love the commitment at every single level to excellence."

The early college program could save a student more than $10,000 in two-year community college tuition. This program is replicable with other schools and community colleges.

2. St. Paul EMS Academy

This new academy "provides an opportunity for minority, low-income, and at-risk youth of St. Paul to be trained as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs)."

St. Paul has a disproportionate share of minority youths, while the emergency medical services workforce was almost entirely Caucasian and few EMTs were multilingual. In the entire state, one EMT of color graduated annually on average before this program.

The St. Paul EMS academy began in 2009. Since then, 202 students have participated -- 42 percent African-American, 15 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 9 percent American Indian and 12 percent multicultural.

The academy is a collaborative of the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity, the St. Paul Fire Department, St. Paul public schools' Hubbs Center, Inver Hills Community College, St. Paul Parks and Recreation's Youth Job Corps, and the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties.

The most recent academy class had a 75 percent graduation rate. Starting wage for an EMT is $31,000, well above the pay of the jobs that participants had before entry into the program. After graduation, some of the graduates continue their education to become advanced EMTs, paramedics and firefighters. Best of all, the program expects to be self-supporting. The St. Paul EMS Academy should be replicable for other communities.

3. Dakota County Jail Re-Entry Assistance Program (RAP)

This new program seeks to reduce re-entry by those completing prison terms with "community-based wraparound services tailored to each former offender's self-directed needs."

Dakota County partnered with the Bush Foundation and Accenture to develop a business case identifying potential return on investment attributable to RAP. The investment is the cost of the services provided to offenders leaving jail, such as housing assistance, employment assistance, mental- and physical-health support, and basic services.

The Jail Re-entry Assistance Program will reduce recidivism by 10 percent, for a savings of $1,420 per participant over three years compared with the traditional approach. This equates to $340,762 for Dakota County, a 29 percent return on investment. Other counties can replicate the Dakota County approach and save dollars similarly.

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As these examples illustrate, Minnesota's public servants are working hard to make government more cost-effective. Minnesotans can vote for their favorite innovator and help them secure $25,000 at this website.

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Jay Kiedrowski is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

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