Steve Kelman on Government Contests

August 1, 2014
By Doug Gavel

There's no need to remove your belt or your shoes the next time you need to catch a flight. Low-risk travelers who participate in the Transportation Safety Administration's (TSA) new PreCheck program experience expedited screening at many of the nation's airports. But the TSA isn't stopping there. It has begun a contest challenging members of the public to come up with new and creative ways to make the program even better.

We spoke recently with Steve Kelman, Albert J. Weatherhead III and Richard W. Weatherhead Professor of Public Manager, to get his perspective on this innovative government-sponsored contest.

Q: In what ways is the TSA contest unique amongst government agencies?

Kelman: Actually, what’s most interesting is that it is not unique. Less than a decade ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ran the first modern “contest” in government. They offered a prize to the first vehicle that could successfully navigate an all-terrain desert course. Many entries came in, including from student groups and universities. (Believe it or not, the Wright brothers airplane was actually developed a long time ago in response to a similar contest, but the innovation disappeared.)

The idea has now rapidly spread, and the government website, Challenge.gov, which is a platform for advertising contests organized by government agencies, won the HKS/Ford Foundation Innovations in American Government award this year.

Q: Are other government agencies employing similar techniques in an effort to improve customer service?

Kelman: Many of these contests have been organized to develop ideas for ways government can serve people better. The Federal Trade Commission ran a contest for a moblie app to make it easier for people to screen unwanted telemarketing calls, and the Centers for Disease Control ran a contest for innovative ways to do HIV and AIDS prevention education for kids.

Q: What other innovative management strategies should government agencies deploy from the private sector?

Kelman: Government should look at techniques industry uses that have counterparts in government, from techniques for spare parts management and IT app development to approaches towards customer service and performance measurement.

Q: How should agencies leverage these types of opportunities to try to generate positive news coverage?

Kelman: Many journalists will be skeptical of agency’s own accounts of their successes. You need to be prepared to encourage the reporter to seek out sources about your program other than the agency itself. And, as an NBC segment on the TSA contest suggests, the media may be more attracted to stories that show unusual ways the government goes about doing its business, ways that don’t correspond to the stereotype of the uptight, buttoned down, boring bureaucrat – approaches that are a bit edgier.

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Steve Kelman, Albert J. Weatherhead III and Richard W. Weatherhead Professor of Public Manager

Steve Kelman, Albert J. Weatherhead III and Richard W. Weatherhead Professor of Public Manager

Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

"Many of these contests have been organized to develop ideas for ways government can serve people better."