Innovative State: Government Contests are a Step in the Right Direction

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Today is the deadline for the CalTrans “$25K Find a New Way” competition. The agency has called for submissions from the public to solve the state’s transportation problems. This seems to be part of a larger trend of government agencies opening their doors, phone lines, inboxes, etc. to take suggestions from the public on seemingly intractable problems. The City of Los Angeles also recently took submissions as part of their “Innovate LA” competition for solutions to water, transportation and housing issues.

It’s by no means a phenomenon confined to California. Missouri has also has an open ended contest for transportation innovation called Road to Tomorrow.

We can surely commend these agencies for taking the first steps towards a more open future. We here at Civinomics couldn’t agree more that more minds will produce more viable solutions. As in all things, though, there is still room for improvement.

First the contests still operate on the black box principle that dominates government. That is to say, there’s no way to see the submissions that other people have made. This makes it impossible for anyone other than the competition’s host agency to continue thinking, working on and solving the problems that have been outlined. Much like traditional surveys, the contests are still many to one, rather than many to many. The information is all flowing into the agency, not being shared among participants so the solutions can continue to evolve.

Second, in the case of CalTrans, the agency is specifically looking for the winning contestant to transfer them intellectual property. They cite the contest the British held to measure longitude and the subsequent invention of the pocket watch as their modal. This may be a little optimistic in a 21st century economy. People with good IP are more likely to start the next Tesla than give the IP to CalTrans, which may or may not be the best agency to develop it anyway. This kind of parameter extremely limits the range of solutions the agency will accept and may be preventing easy quick innovations from being implemented.

Third, CalTrans has explicitly forbade the participation of government employees in the contest – yet it’s usually the people closest to the problem that come up with easy optimizations. For example, the City of Santa Cruz, CA invited the public to submit ideas for solving the city’s water crises. Two of the winning ideas, upgrading the existing water treatment plant to harvest more winter river flows and ranney collectors (which are like wells in a riverbed) came from Terry McKinney, a Water Production Superintendant at the Santa Cruz Water Dept.

Fourth, the process of developing solutions could be assisted further by giving the contests rounds. Currently they are all or nothing: submit your idea by the deadline and you’ll hear back from us if you win. Well, anyone who finished high school knows that the final draft of a paper is usually leagues ahead of the first draft. These contests would generate much better solutions if they selected a handful of semi-finalists, provided feedback, and then had at least one more final round.

Fifth there should be a clear metrics that the winners will be judged against, a data set used to define the problem, compare the potential of solutions and measure the effectiveness early implementations. CalTrans gets close to this by describing their criteria as: Innovation, Potential Benefits, and Implementation.  Even better would be to describe specific metrics like Cost/ Avg Hrs Spent in Traffic/ Net Emissions and asking contestants to describe their solutions in these terms. This was the case for Santa Cruz’s contest as well which could have done a better job of asking submissions to include both a cost estimate and a total number of gallons of water produced.

For now though, kudos. These contests are one small step for government, hopefully they’ll lead to a gigantic leap forward for mankind.


  1. Jean Brocklebank says:

    Great suggestions on improving the contests. I hope you submitted them to CalTrans! Your suggestions deserve not only a prize but a serious effort at implementation.

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