Public Contests Create Great Communities

By Michael Koss, reprinted from the Kansas Government Journal July 2012 issue

There was a poster hanging in my high school weight room that said “Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” For me, the first part has always seemed to be the more difficult of the two. It’s sometimes hard to connect that first step with long-term goals, even if those goals are extremely important.

Local governments have to deal with motivation too. With so many employees performing so many different tasks, it can be hard to motivate all of them to contribute to one over-arching goal. One of the better solutions I’ve heard to this problem came from the City of Olathe.

Olathe used to have an employee incentives program that paid employees for finding ways to save the city money. If an employee came up with a strategy to deliver a service for less than the city currently spent providing that service, and the strategy could be easily implemented, that employee received 10% of the savings.  By offering rewards to each individual, the City was able to motivate all employees to contribute toward its goal of decreasing expenses.  Financial rewards work well because they motivate people with immediate pay-offs for their efforts. That’s why it’s not surprising some local governments are also starting to offer monetary rewards to non-employees to solve problems and improve conditions within the community.

Issues often arise in cities that require creativity and sophisticated solutions. In 2008, after Hurricane Ike devastated Texas’s coastline, the City of Houston, Texas organized a contest to pay for ideas that dealt with the massive amount of tree debris left by the storm. A group of faculty and students at Rice University won the $10,000 first-place prize

Hurricane Ike devastation

by proposing the debris be converted to biomass charcoal, a process that reduces greenhouse gases and creates a commodifiable fertilizer. The second and third place winners received $5,000 and $2,500 respectively, but the City also received hundreds of other free ideas, giving them an abundance of options on how to deal with the debris. With a price tag of $17,500, the useful ideas generated by the contest substantially outweighed the resources devoted to it.

While contests are great solutions to difficult municipal problems, they can also be used to attract residents and businesses. In the fall of 2011, the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania offered $100,000 to the winner of their Experienced Dreamers contest, which invited individuals from across the country to relocate and expand their business in the city. After two rounds of judging, five entrants’ were presented to the public for an online vote. The winner was Tess Lojacono, the owner of Fine Arts Miracles, a self-started business that teaches fine art to residents of assisted living and nursing homes.  The contest not only brought a new business, jobs, and community service to the city, but also attracted many new residents by giving national attention to the city’s high quality of life.

Chattanooga, Tennessee is taking a more hands-on approach to business creation with its public contest, offering their business accelerator and $300,000 in prizes and seed money to the group that comes up with the most viable business plan. Beginning this August, the finalists will face-off in a 14-week contest, and the City hopes their accelerator will develop Chattanooga’s newest start-up company.

While some cities demand tight control over their public contests, some are finding the best strategy is to donate under-utilized public resources to community foundations that manage the competitions.  For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, the City donated a one block, city-owned surface parking lot to a community foundation, which supplied the prize money and solicited ideas for the space.  After almost 3,000 people submitted more than 1,100 ideas, the City awarded $50,000 to the creator of the best idea, a multi-use facility devoted to entertainment and social engagement.

Although public contests can be large, ambitious endeavors, small-scale competitions can also be used to create great communities.  Here in Kansas, the City of Stafford partners with the Kansas PRIDE Organization to put on a “best yard” contest. Each month, PRIDE judges the yards within the City, and each winner gets a $10.00 utility credit and a picture of their yard in the local courier. During the holidays, the City encourages residents to decorate for Christmas by offering the same utility credit to residents that have three or more strands of lights outside of their house. By making small investments in these public contests, Stafford’s city government helps create a beautiful community its citizens can be proud to be a part of.

The success of these public contests hasn’t been lost on national leaders. In March, 2010, the White House directed agencies to identify and carry out challenges, and asked them to address legal, regulatory, technical, and other barriers to the use of challenges and associated prizes. Shortly thereafter President Obama ordered the establishment of, which “empowers the U.S. Government and the public to bring the best ideas and top talent to bear on our nation’s most pressing challenges,” ( The website creates forums for the public to post and vote for solutions to agency-identified issues. The top ideas receive monetary or non-monetary rewards only if the challenge is solved.  The site isn’t just a great example of how cities can organize their own contests, but many of the challenges also deal with municipal issues, so local officials should consider participating.

City residents want to live in excellent communities, but sometimes they need a nudge to contribute to their betterment. These residents aren’t just customers, they’re also assets. By using public contests to tap into their collective knowledge and skills, cities can attract jobs, find cost effective solutions to difficult issues, and increase the overall quality of life within their communities.

Michael Koss a student in the KU MPA program and serves as the Membership Services Manager for the League of Kansas Municipalities. He can be reached at or (785) 354-9565.