- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (UPI) — Several regional think tanks driven by free-market ideology are running public competitions that solicit policy ideas, in an effort to have a direct impact upon policymaking at the state and local levels.

Charles Chieppo, former director of the Better Government Competition held by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, told United Press International that such competitions are an effective way for state-level think tanks to have a positive influence on government.

"In the 11 years that the Pioneer program has been in operation, the winning proposals have saved about $300 million of Massachusetts taxpayers' money," said Chieppo, who recently left Pioneer to become policy director of the Massachusetts office of administration and finance under Republican Governor Mitt Romney.

For 2003, the Pioneer Institute has called for citizens to submit money-saving policy proposals on several issues plaguing the cash-strapped Massachusetts government. The issues include improving special education, fixing the state's budget deficit situation, encouraging urban business development and reforming Medicaid.

A grand prizewinner will be chosen in each category and will be awarded $3,000. Judges for the contest are drawn from academia, media, the business world and the think tank itself.

Whether the competition — which is credited as being the first of its kind — has accomplished Pioneer's main objective of finding fresh, groundbreaking policies, is open to interpretation. But the winning entries have certainly had an impact on state and local policy in Massachusetts.

Following Pioneer's publication of the first winning entries in 1991, William Weld, the Republican governor of Massachusetts at the time, reportedly issued a memo in which he said that eight of the 11 ideas honored in the tank's competition should be implemented during his tenure.

Several of those proposals, including a system for managing and maintaining government-owed vehicles, eventually became state policy. Another winning plan for cleaning up Boston harbor was adopted by the Massachusetts Water Authority in its effort to address pollution problems in the bay.

Ralph Buglass, director of communications at Pioneer, told UPI that over the years, the response from government officials to the winning policy ideas has generally been very good, because the plans are typically designed to both improve efficiency and hold down costs.

"In this budget climate, that will fall on especially receptive ears," he said. Buglass noted that his state faces a shortfall of more than $2 billion this fiscal year.

Other free-market-oriented think tanks from across the nation and around the globe have emulated the Pioneer model. The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in New Hampshire, the London-based Adam Smith Institute and Canada's Fraser Institute have all held similar competitions.

Kurt T. Weber, vice president of the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, Ore., said that his think tank's policy competitions have allowed the general public to have a greater say in the policy process in the state.

"The idea is to engage citizens more in ideas and to give them a soap box on which to stand," said Weber.

Cascade, which is also driven by free-market ideology, held four policy competitions in 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000. Weber said that they have been successful in raising public awareness about important policy issues and getting legislative action.

For example, he said that one winning application helped garner support for a state pilot project that facilitates quicker placement of foster children in permanent homes. The program was eventually implemented by the state.

He also credited a winning entry in 2000 for raising public awareness about Oregon's severely under-funded Public Employee Retirement System, a problem that is currently subject to great political debate in the state.

Although the competitions have been successful, Weber said that Cascade decided to stop holding them because they no longer fit into the think tank's agenda.

In addition, he noted that the contests had already generated a number of long-term ideas from the nearly 800 entries they received from individuals across the political spectrum.

Beyond think tanks, local governments have begun to also use these competitions as a policymaking tool. Bill LaFortune, the mayor of Tulsa, Okla., began a competition in 2002 that is modeled on the Pioneer program, and that Pioneer has helped to run.

LaFortune has offered a $10,000 prize for the best idea to make city operations more efficient. In addition, three runners up will receive $1,000 for their ideas.

The city has held similar policy competitions in the past, but this is the first time that one is open to public participation.

Stan Staley, president and co-founder of the Buckeye Institute, a free-market think tank in Columbus, Ohio, said that policy competitions are an effective way to find new ideas. He said that the competitions run by Cascade and Pioneer have been particularly effective in this regard.

"I think the competitions that are run well really have an opportunity to have a real impact on state policy," Staley told UPI. "What is good about them is that they can develop concrete ideas that are workable, and with those ideas they can create a blueprint for reform."

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