The Innovations in American Government Awards program was founded in 1985 through a partnership between the Ford Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The program’s mission is to recognize, promote, and disseminate innovative programs, policies, and practices so that they can become widely adopted and established as best practices.

Since the program's inception, over 27,000 programs have applied for the award, and nearly 500 initiatives have received grant funding. Many more programs have received recognition for their efforts.

In the spring of 2001, the Ford Foundation presented Harvard Kennedy School with a grant that endows Innovations in American Government Awards in perpetuity and houses it within the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

In 2003, the Ash Center launched the Government Innovators Network to highlight innovations recognized by the award and to bring attention to research on government innovation and the work of government innovators around the world.