Good Ideas, Youthful Enthusiasm and the Challenges of Public Policy

When teams of talented university students take on difficult contemporary issues, impressive things happen.
by | March 25, 2013
 

Think "Shark Tank" for public policy: extraordinary ideas for solving contemporary challenges presented to a panel made up of experienced public officials and other experts by top students from highly rated public-administration schools.

That would be a pretty apt description of the National Public Policy Challenge, an annual invitational event hosted by the Fels Institute of Government of the University of Pennsylvania. It's a collaborative effort of Fels and Governing, sponsored by the Knight Foundation and Deloitte. Teams of three to five students from nine universities competed recently in the second annual challenge. As would be expected from the caliber of the schools competing, the presentations were impressive--impressive enough, in fact, that they startled the panel of nine judges, seven of them former Governing Public Officials of the Year, with their quality and innovation.

Take this year's overall winner, for example. The University of Pennsylvania's re:Mind team took on the challenge of improving the rates at which mental-health patients keep their outpatient appointments. It's an issue of vital importance to hospitals that want not only to improve treatment outcomes but also to reduce the costs they incur due to no-shows, and it's a goal of the federal Affordable Care Act. With a modest budget and the use of simple technology--text messages, cellphones and email--the re:Mind proposal demonstrated a return of investment of fully 8,000 percent. In fact, it would reach a break-even point if only three patients out of the thousands who are eligible were assisted in making their regularly scheduled appointments. And re:Mind is entirely scalable, both vertically (within the mental health field) and horizontally (across the spectrum of diseases and outpatient services).

Real issues, real results--and real prizes. Each of the finalist teams received $5,000 awards, and the re:Mind team took home an additional $10,000. The rules are simple. Each team self-selects an issue and puts together a solution. The team then must put together a problem statement for its issue; develop a feasibility plan for solving it; research and recommend a complete implementation plan; and develop a persuasive oral presentation. Proposals and presentations are judged across four major criteria:

• Is the initiative worth doing?

• Is the initiative doable?

• Has the team developed a clear vision of the necessary implementation steps?

• Is the team's presentation of its initiative persuasive?

While each of this year's solutions had its own local context and application, several overall themes stood out. Virtually all of the initiatives, for example, contained some element of using technology to further a specific aspect of public policy. But as one of the judges, former Rochester, N.Y., Mayor William A. Johnson, who now is a professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, put it, "It was not the innovation of the technology that made the solution unique but rather the application of proven technology in a way that bridged a gap in needed public services in a unique and creative manner."

Another theme was the emphasis on upfront capture of data to provide for informed policymaking. Not only did the majority of the proposals include an aspect of data capture, but many of them highlighted the importance of data capture to help build the utility of the initiative to work beyond the initial stage of implementation.

A third theme was the students' comprehensive understanding of the complexity of policymaking. Implementation plans took into account existing public policy, political considerations, and legislative, regulatory and stakeholder concerns.

While the re:Mind team was the overall winner, it had stiff competition. An online data-driven resource called CluedIn, for example, would match parents in New York City with needed after-school services (New York University). Effortless Energy (University of Chicago) would provide Chicago homeowners with a unique financial arrangement to take advantage of energy savings. And Piecing Assistance Together for Charitable Helpers (University of Georgia) would create a real-time response network among nonprofit service providers in the Athens, Ga., area.

The real payoff for any of the student teams participating in the National Public Policy Challenge, of course, would be to see their ideas implemented in the real world of government service delivery. In that sense, the re:Mind team's proposal already has paid off. On the eve of their presentation, the team's members learned that their community partner, Philadelphia's community behavioral health agency, had fully funded their pilot. The agency's director called the students' initiative a "no-brainer."

If your college or university is interested in participating in a future National Public Policy Challenge or your company would like to have a front-row seat to the future of public policy by being a sponsor, email TheChallenge@SAS.UPenn.edu.

This column has been updated to correct the name of the Fels Institute of Government.

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