The California Department of General Services is one of the departments participating in the 25K Find A New Way contest. (Photo Credit: Griffin5/Wikimedia Commons)
It’s safe to say the last thing Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom expected was that his 2013 book Citizenville would become the inspiration for a statewide contest that’s currently underway. It will hand out $25,000 prizes to California adults who come up with the most innovative ideas for combating underage drinking, showcasing the state’s environmental successes and improving state transportation.
“Everybody has an opinion on how to improve freeways,” says California Assemblymember Mike Gatto, who explains the connection between Newsom’s book, and the contest he, Gatto, came up with. It’s called, “25K Find A New Way.”
“Many Californians don’t feel in touch with their government,” Gatto said. “They would not know how to propose an idea or how to submit something for a government contract. As a result of that feeling of being left out, we turn to the ballot box more than other people.”
It’s a concept Newsom discusses in his book, Citizenville, which explains how ordinary citizens can get directly involved in government operations by using digital tools to overcome political gridlock.
“I was reading it,” Gatto said, “and I had this ‘ah-ha’ moment. I thought, with a few tweeks there’s a way to work this [theme] into a legislative process.”
The result of that effort is Assembly Bill 2138, which Gatto authored. Signed into law in September 2014, it gives everyday Californians a chance to identify areas of improvement in three state departments and create solutions. Each department has $25,000 to award the best idea. Far more than a suggestion, it must be a fully-formed “intellectual property.”
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) will select the best plan for improving safety, efficiencies or operations in the state’s transportation system. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) is looking for a new approach to preventing or reducing underage drinking, and the California Department of General Services (DGS) hopes to find someone offering a creative way of displaying the reams of data it has on its sustainability practices, which include everything from the fuel and water usage of individual state buildings, to greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re just looking for ideas on how to help the public better understand what the state’s doing,” explained Brian Ferguson, DGS’ deputy director of public affairs. “For instance, there are lots of publicly-accessible data on how effective California has been in making the switch from traditional state vehicles to hybrid or zero- emission ones. We just need to do a better job of telling that story and we’re hoping the community can help us do that.”
Assemblyman Gatto calls the $25,000 prizes carefully calculated rewards: “We wanted to make it significant enough to catch the public’s attention, but also small enough so that it wasn’t a huge budget outlay. It’s a nice prize but it’s ultimately about the fame and the renown that comes with solving a problem that could lead to a wonderful career or simply the pride of getting kudos.”
While Ferguson reports General Services has gotten “lots of inquiries and questions” about the contest, Gatto confesses to being the guy whose biggest nightmare is throwing a party where no one shows up.
“I’m very excited but I’m also a worrier,” Ferguson said. “I just hope this is a success. If someone comes up with something that’s really neat, it could be front page news and the public will feel really engaged. Or it could go the other way, where nobody submits anything. It’s hard in a modern world to break through the Kardashian news and make sure people are paying attention to this sort of thing.”
While the state has spread the word on social media platforms, Gatto plans on asking the departments to consider reaching out to colleges and universities as well.
“I think that’s really the sweet spot,” said Gatto. “If we get the word out to colleges, professors might make it a class project and students might see it as a path to a job and they’re probably right. In the end, I feel really confident that these departments are going to have really good stories to tell afterwards.”
Thirteen college campuses recently reaped their own cash awards totaling $50 million as a result of another recent competition in innovation. The Awards for Innovation in Higher Education were handed out to institutions for finding creative and cost-effective ways to get more students to earn degrees in less time. CA Fwd convened a showcase of ideas generated by schools earlier this year.
It offered further proof that, as Newsom stated in his book, “incentive prizes are a perfect bipartisan solution; They solve problems, help people, and save money, thereby fulfilling goals that span the whole political spectrum.”
The deadline for submitting ideas is October 13 at 5pm. Winners will be announced by December 31, 2015. For more details, visit www.findanewway.ca.gov or the departments’ homepages.