24: Ideas welcome
Ask the public how to improve public services
The problem: introspective elites
In many countries, policymaking is confined to a small elite. Even where there are democratic elections, it can be hard for ordinary people to put forward ideas that could have a big impact on the quality and cost of public services. But can our political leaders really claim to have a monopoly of wisdom?
The idea: ask the public
Why not open up the policymaking process with an invitation to the public to come up with ideas - a policy ideas competition? And then help develop the best ideas into practical policy initiatives.
Examples: ideas competitions
In the 1980s a young man called Kurt Weber sat down to brainstorm with colleagues at the Institute for Humane Studies in Virginia. He had been thinking about the Institute's student essay competitions, and he wanted to initiate one on privatization. The group concluded that this would not work; but one of them, John Pittinger, commented that if the competition were open to everyone and had a decent prize and publicity, the idea might really take off.
Six months later, John Blundell, then at the Institute for Human Studies, was thinking again about how to open up the policy process. He remembered the earlier discussions: but just how could an essay competition be broadened out to help the policy process? To make it work, he thought:
In Boston one day, Blundell mentioned his thinking to Lovett C 'Pete' Peters, founder and Chairman of the Pioneer Institute, who thought it was a great idea. And so, in the United States, this became the first example of a radical new approach to policy change. Peters called it the 'Better Government Competition' and persuaded the Governor of Massachusetts to read all twelve of the finalists' proposals. And by costing out the savings that the ideas would generate, Peters had an event that would hit the headlines and build up publicity to make sure that new ideas kept coming in.
- People should be encouraged to enter, so the first hurdle should be an easy one - say, a 500-word policy suggestion only;
- The best 10-12 entries should be selected, and as the competitors would realize that they now had a strong chance of winning, they would willingly develop their ideas further into a full 'business plan' for implementing the policy.
Before long, following the success of the idea in Massachusetts, policy ideas competitions were springing up all over, run by the Fraser Institute in Canada, the Pacific Institute in California, and the Adam Smith Institute in the United Kingdom.
In 1993 the Adam Smith Institute ran its Economy in Government Competition in collaboration with management consultants Ernst & Young and the Sunday Times newspaper. The newspaper provided publicity for the initiative, which brought in 400 entries in its first year. Ernst & Young offered to help the finalists develop their proposals into a fuller 'business plan' and the Chief Secretary of the Treasury (the UK cabinet minister charged with controlling public expenditure) was brought in to hand out the prizes.
The winning entrant proposed contracting-out many of the activities of the Department of Trade - and was subsequently hired by the Department to do precisely that, at a saving of £300,000 per annum. And that was just the start!
In 2001 Pacific Research Institute, to take another example, recognized an organization, Hope Now for Youth, as the grand winner of its ninth annual competition. Hope Now for Youth is one of a number of private bodies that are using innovative methods to help solve social problems. A faith-based group operating from churches that donate office space, it provides job training and placement, mentoring, work-ethic development and scholarships, and has taken 675 gang members off the streets and placed them in gainful employment.
The Fraser Institute's Economy in Government Competition offered a cash prize of $25,000 and followed the same two-stage 'proposal' and 'business plan' model adopted by the Adam Smith Institute. A number of the winning ideas were actually adopted by the federal and provincial governments. Ideas as simple and practical as changing how coins were minted, or how sprinkler systems were installed, saved Canadian taxpayers thousands of dollars.
For further information:
Copyright 2002: Adam Smith Institute
Created and Maintained by: Cyberpoint Limited