Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE — Sen. Mike Lee speaks as he holds one of a series of hour long town hall meetings at the Spanish Fork Fairgrounds Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. Sometimes policy innovation takes place by crossing party lines. It also comes from looking at governmental problems with fresh eyes, or addressing changes forced upon vested interests by new technologies.

We generally think of innovation as something done primarily by entrepreneurs and companies.

But at a summit here in Salt Lake last week on "Utah's Idea Factory," Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee showed that government and policy innovations can be just as far-reaching as the newest app on a handheld device.

Sometimes new solutions come from looking at governmental problems with fresh eyes. Sometimes they are forced upon vested interests by changing technology. In demonstrating the role that ideas play in public policy, Lee is performing a valuable service.

Monday's event at the EnergySolutions Arena gathered local leaders and businesses, and helped burnish Lee’s reputation for smart policy-making in Washington. Some of this takes place by crossing party lines and adopting ideas, like curtaining mandatory minimum sentences, generally associated with the other side of the political spectrum.

According to a recent National Journal article, "Lee is par­tic­u­larly proud of his work with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Dick Durbin on crim­in­al-justice re­form. In Feb­ru­ary, the pair in­tro­duced the Smarter Sen­ten­cing Act, which seeks to ra­tion­al­ize fed­er­al sen­ten­cing for drug of­fend­ers." It seems as though everyone — from President Obama to Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa — is now on board the effort.

At Monday's summit on policy innovation, the two stand-out performances came from former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt on transportation, and from Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, on reforming accreditation for higher education.

Leavitt was the Republican governor of this state from 1993 to 2003, when he began the Washington phase of his career at the Environmental Protection Agency and then as the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

As the prelude to, preparation for, and execution of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics was one defining feature of his governorship, it wasn't a surprise when Leavitt began his remarks discussing the way that the Olympic adventure truly united Utah with a common purpose.

But what Leavitt really talked about was the behind-the-scenes policy innovation allowing the state to adequately prepare transportation infrastructure for the Olympics.

"We had to fix 130 overpasses, 8 urban interchanges, and three interstate junctions," said Leavitt. "Normally, we would have broken that into 20 separate construction contracts, taking at least 10 years and costing $2 billion."

In the middle of such construction, of course, the world would come to Salt Lake.

Leavitt asked Tom Warner, the executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, to come up with a different solution.

He proposed a contractual change that, Leavitt said, made all the difference between a congested Olympics and the well-executed one that came off.

Instead of having the state design the road, and break it into separate contracts to build, UDOT proposed a "design/build" solution. A single contractor would be awarded the job of achieving the state's intended goals, and taking responsibility for any shortfalls.

The three key aspects to the success of the new construction contracts, Leavitt said, were: First, granting the entire contract to a single entity, and offering it up to $50 million in bonus fees if it met its performance obligations; second, insisting on a 15-year-warranty on the work; and third, paying up to $1 million to losing bidders who contributed their intellectual property so that the collective project could run as smoothly as possible.

The end result was a project that took 4.5 years, instead of 10, at a price take of $1.6 billion, instead of $2 billion.

Leavitt described the highway construction project as an example of Utah's highest form of collaboration. "Yes, this required a good idea, but it also required a series of other good ideas."

Following the veteran politician Leavitt was Sen. Sasse, a relative newcomer who was elected to the Senate last November. Sasse worked for Leavitt at Health and Human Services, and spent his pre-Senate career turning institutions around. Most recently, he was president of Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska. During his tenure, enrollment more than doubled and finances when from a seven-figure deficit to seven-figure surplus.

Doing so, said Sasse, came down to re-engineering the college around skills that students need for future employment — and away from doing things the way they have always been done. It meant seeking out non-traditional student, and delivering education in new ways.

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Among the legislative innovations that he is now discussing with Lee, and with presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, include a reform of the system of accrediting institutions of higher education.

"These accrediting regimes look at the problems of 10-15 years ago," said Sasse. Our future system of higher education will not be about young, resident students attending liberal arts colleges, but about online, blended, and competency-based learning. "The accreditation system is not at all ready" to manage these innovations in education.

Innovation is vital not just to private enterprises, but also public purposes.

Drew Clark is of counsel at the law firm of Kirton McConkie, where he deals with technology, media and telecommunications. Connect on Twitter @drewclark or via email at