Obama Has Gone Contest Crazy

In late 2008, the Obama inaugural committee announced a classic contest straight out of Super Bowl sweepstakes season: Submit an essay on what this inauguration means to you, and you and a guest could win an all-expenses-paid trip to this once-in-a-lifetime event!

It was a sweet reward for 10 lucky Obamamaniacs and friends, capping the candidate’s campaign theme of grassroots participation-by-Internet (you could, of course, submit your essay online).

In retrospect, the open call was a glimpse of strategy to come. Over the past year, the Obama administration has had states competing for lucrative education grants, federal employees competing to identify government waste, engineers competing to design NASA gear and school kids competing for a presidential commencement address. (That last contest, again, elevated the art of essay writing.)

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a contest to see which energy-efficient commercial buildings could trim the most kilowatt hours.  And this week, the Department of Commerce announced the i6 Challenge, a $12 million interagency competition to see who could design the best innovation ecosystems to fast-track technology research and design to commercialization.

“They do like contests,” said Darrell West, the director of governance studies at Brookings, with whom we checked to make sure we weren’t inventing a bogus presidential trend story. “It’s a way to engage the community in innovation, and they think that they have gotten good ideas out of this.”

The strategy is savvy on a number of fronts, expanding government participation and the pool of ideas beyond bureaucrats. And what Republican could quibble with the concept of mining solutions and rewarding entrepreneurs (or school kids) in the mini free market of competition?

A contest cleverly nudges the behavior of everyone involved, not just the winners. The Department of Education clearly had this in mind with the Race to the Top competition. Delaware and Tennessee were the sole winners of the first round of stimulus education grants, but three dozen other states have already begun conforming to Arne Duncan’s vision of school reform in their bids to be considered.

Duncan and Obama didn’t even have to get Congress involved in the act.

Similarly, a lone Veterans Affairs staffer won the competition to identify a solvable piece of government waste. But 38,000 other government employees were engaged in the message that effective government works as much from the bottom up as the top down. And the only carrot Obama had to hold up was … himself.

As with the students at Kalamazoo Central High School, who this week won the commencement challenge, that VA staffer simply won a little face time with the president, no great expenditure for the federal government.

Which brings up another benefit: Competitions are cost-effective (doubly so for the cost-effective competitions designed to identify cost-effective ideas).

With competitions, the government gets to “establish a goal without determining who is in the best position to reach the goal or what the most promising technical approach is,” concluded a 2006 Hamilton Project report urging greater use of government prizes for technological innovation. Even better, it added, “The government only pays the prize money if someone is successful.”

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency were early proponents of contests to spur new technology, predating the Obama administration. But the Internet has opened up the concept to everyone from scientists to State Department employees, on every issue from education reform to energy conservation.

Today, a contest is announced on a blog. Contestants are encouraged to hashtag their submissions on Twitter. Then all of cyberspace can vote on the best ones in a democratic poll.

The contest craze, then, isn’t so much a reflection of Obama’s particular governing style as it is the Internet age in which he is governing.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” West said. “There’s going to be much greater grassroots involvement than we’ve had in the past, and I don’t think a new administration is going to change that. It really is broader than any particular administration. It’s societal.”


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