MASSACHUSETTS citizens have an unusual opportunity to think creatively for their environment and their government.
A competition here is encouraging people from all walks of life to think up ideas for new state environmental initiatives. It is sponsored by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank, and is the organization's second annual "Better Government Competition."
Bay State officials are enthusiastically supporting the contest. "There are some issues that concern only a select group of people," says Lt. Gov. Paul Cellucci (R). "The environment, however, is everyone's concern. This is every citizen's opportunity to put forward an innovative solution. We firmly believe that some of the best ideas, best solutions, come from the ground up."
Last year, Pioneer sponsored a similar competition for citizen initiatives on ways to downsize the state government in response to a state fiscal crisis. Judges picked 11 entries from 175 plans. The state is actively pursuing eight of these.
To enter the competition, applicants must submit a proposal of five or more pages describing an environmental problem and a solution. An honorarium of up to $5,000 per entry to cover research costs is available to finalists. A panel of five independent judges will announce up to 15 finalists by June 15. Applicants do not have to be from Massachusetts to enter.
Environmental officials say there are loads of possibilities.
"There are so many good ideas out there," says State Secretary of Environmental Affairs Susan Tierney. "An area that I just can't wait to see ideas in is in regard to the Clean Air Act. [It's] an act that is salivating for good ideas about doing environmental protection in business-sensible ways."
Massachusetts, which already takes a leading role with several of its own innovative environmental programs, still must deal with such problems as hazardous and solid waste disposal, contaminated beaches, and the cleanup of Boston Harbor.
PIONEER officials and Republican Gov. William Weld hope to encourage the idea of private sector involvement in government, an idea that fits in with the governor's philosophy of "entrepreneurial government."
Canada and California have held similar citizen competitions, and several other American states have expressed interest in the idea. Last year, the Fraser Institute, a Canadian social and economic policy think tank based in Vancouver, British Columbia, invited applicants to propose ways to improve efficiency in the federal government.
The idea was to suggest ways to lower the cost of government programs without cutting down on services they provide. Of the 750 entries in the competition, three were chosen.
"We got a very large number of very good proposals and the judges had great difficulty coming up with three winners," says Michael Walker, executive director of the Fraser Institute. Mr. Fraser said the program was so successful that it will be replicated in some Canadian provinces this year.
John Blundell, executive committee chairman of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va., has helped other institutes organize competitions. The entries come from a variety of sources including consulting firms, think tanks, and banks, Mr. Blundell says.
One of the eight winners for Massachusetts' competition last year was a parking-lot operator who designed a plan to turn idle land owned by the state into commercial parking lots. Another winner was a two-person team - a state legislator and graduate student - who designed a privately sponsored volunteer plan for elderly home care.
"You normally hire an expert [to design government programs,] but we said, 'Let's see what ideas are out there that the man on the street might have, and with some help, might turn into a business plan,' " Blundell says.