From the Editor: Outside the Box

Posted April 20, 2012 at 11:05am

One of the great things about  life inside the Beltway is that the conversation in social settings keeps getting more and more informative and enlightening the longer you stick around.

Among the guests at a friend’s birthday party this month were a predictable mix of lobbyists, regulatory lawyers, Hill aides from both parties, think tank types, fellow journalists and political appointees from the current and previous administrations. And what was so heartening was how eager the group was to steer away from the stereotypical topics — Congressional dysfunction, the Republican running mate shortlist, misbehavior at the General Services Administration and the Secret Service — and talk instead about the ample, if unheralded, evidence that Washington is still capable of thinking outside the box.

Among the examples touted: the pending arrival of flexible solar panels on soldiers’ backpacks, the tablet computers that have replaced scribble-covered clipboards in VA hospital rooms, creative approaches for reversing beach erosion, average-speed enhancements along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor and the testing of electromagnetic pulses as a possible replacement for gunpowder.

None of those was chosen as a case study in this CQ Roll Call Outlook, our second in the past year devoted to innovative thinking by the federal government. They all could have been, of course. But instead, we turned for ideas to a half-dozen of our own policy reporters — these particular journalists average a decade of experience on their current beats — and found more than enough examples to choose from.

None of them, to be clear, is on the order of the transcontinental railroad, the Manhattan Project, the race to the moon — or even the creation of the GPS. In that context, the era of big government innovation may well be over; for sure it is at least on hold.

Still, as senior economics writer Joe Schatz makes clear in the introduction to this issue, the roster of federal initiatives that are under way are all the more notable precisely because of the political and budgetary climate in which they’re taking place. At a time when Republicans and Democrats in Congress can hardly agree on how many pocket-sized Constitutions the government can afford to print, sustaining spending on even a project with palpable national defense or energy conservation benefits is more than a small accomplishment.