It doesn’t have to be an oxymoron

IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, Americans have been made acutely aware of government in their daily lives. Why?

A worldwide pandemic that shut down the U.S. economy required a government response. Daily, everyone reads about rising crime in our cities, raging inflation, challenges with our public school systems in students not graduating, and even an unwelcome war that we are now partially financing.

These are serious challenges, and whatever stripe you may be politically, we can all agree that government is under pressure to solve daunting problems.

The problem is that the government has budgetary constraints and cannot compete financially for talent with the private sector.

So is it possible for the government to drive innovation to solve its challenges as happens in the private sector?

The answer is a resounding “yes,” if the government is willing to embrace partnerships with businesses.

In 2020, the U.S. government helped accelerate the fastest development of a vaccine in the history of the world by working hand-in- glove with pharmaceutical companies.

The federal government does have an agency for defense research projects. But it does not have anything similar to address societal problems.

Maybe it is time for government officials to stop demonizing private sector businesses, and it is time for the leadership of private companies to stop demonizing the government as unwelcome bureaucrats.

I can speak with some authority. I was appointed to the Board of Harbor Commissioners by the mayor of Milwaukee many moons ago to turn around the then declining Port of Milwaukee.

The port director of Chicago was one of the applicants for the position of Milwaukee port director. I passed him over and hired an executive running his own shipping company in Houston, Ken Szallai. He outsourced many traditional government-run operations to private entities. As a result, it allowed the Port of Milwaukee to innovate in a way never seen before.

Szallai tied the knot with the private companies that could deliver cement, street salt, fertilizers, steel and more.

The Port and private industry worked to- gether to create ship docks that are now being used by cruise ship lines. Szalli also led the charge to create Lake Express, the high-speed ferry service to Michigan.

The Port of Milwaukee became the fastest growing port on the Great Lakes and won the St. Lawrence Seaway’s Pacesetter Award year after year. At the same time, it reduced the cost to the taxpayers of Milwaukee.

Think about the possibilities of innovation in government. Here are just some ideas that could be explored:

  1. The use of drones to detect and follow high- speed cars that kill innocent pedestrians. Drones are a lot less dangerous than a police car traveling at high rates of speed.
  2. Students sometimes fail because of discipline problems in the classroom. How about mounting cameras in every classroom so behavior can be monitored? Most research on crime has determined that the fear of apprehension deters crime and bad behavior.
  3.  Homelessness is rampant in our cities, but studies find that a significant portion of the homeless is mentally ill. Clearly, there have to be innovative ways of keeping mentally ill people safe and off the streets. We need the best and the brightest from private industry to suggest solutions.
  4. The rising cost of government could be reduced through technology, including artificial intelligence and robotics.

Unfortunately, the government is not equipped to generate those solutions, but the private sector has proven it can do it. So it needs to be involved.

What mechanisms could be used to drive these kinds of innovative solutions? All levels of government could create an agency dedicated to driving innovation for societal problems.

Could those agencies learn a lesson from the world of angel and venture capital? In that world, entrepreneurs are continually looking for creative ways to solve problems and have launched some of the world’s greatest companies.

Government can continually challenge entrepreneurs in the private sector to devel- op innovative solutions to our most daunting problems and then give awards to those that solve them. The company or entrepreneur would own the patents, and the government and your fellow citizens would enjoy the benefits of their innovation.

I am the grandson of Daniel Hoan. During his tenure as mayor from 1916-1940, he landed on the cover of Time Magazine as the mayor of the best run city in America. He was a socialist but used capitalistic techniques to drive innovation. For example, he was responsible for innovating with industry the product known as milorganite that turns human waste into usable fertilizer in our gardens. Now there’s real creativity! ■