The White House is asking agencies to coordinate online contests and prizes as a way to reach outside Washington for ideas that will improve government, but some lawmakers say such efforts amount to misuse of federal funds.
Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Pete Olson, R-Texas, argue the agency running Regulations.gov, a site that collects public input on proposed policies governmentwide, is wasting taxpayer dollars by offering a $2,500 cash prize to the winner of a video contest aimed at increasing participation in shaping federal rules. The agency currently is reviewing entries for a competition that asked citizens to essentially create public service announcements encouraging people to critique proposals by visiting Regulations.gov.
The contest is one example of a growing trend in government sanctioned by the Office of Management and Budget, which issued a memo in March outlining how agencies can legally administer contests. OMB said agencies can reward participants who submit the best solutions to national problems with monetary prizes using relevant congressional appropriations, grants and procurements.
Prizes are part of President Obama's open government initiative, which calls for federal employees to make transparency, public participation and collaboration with entities outside Washington routine practices in government. The Agriculture Department and first lady Michelle Obama currently are challenging computer programmers to develop online tools and games that will motivate families to eat better and to exercise more. The incentive for the Apps for Healthy Kids initiative: a share of $40,000 in cash prizes.
The memo also said not every winner should be compensated with cash. Sometimes the experience of participating is the reward itself, as is the case with other healthy eating competitions in school cafeterias, the document stated.
Blackburn and Olson criticized the Environmental Protection Agency, which manages Regulations.gov and organized the $2,500 competition, for doling out too many cash prizes. The pair identified five video contests offering financial rewards that, when combined with the Regulations.gov challenge, amount to more than $30,000. The other projects involved videos related to community water quality ($5,000 in prize money), recycling ($2,500), environmental justice ($11,000), responsible wood burning ($4,250, including a $250 Treasury bond) and lead poisoning ($5,000).
Last month, Blackburn and Olson jointly entered the Regulations.gov contest so they could donate the proceeds to the Treasury Department if they won. Their video explains the significance of rule-making and prods people to prevent "silly regulations" by weighing in on proposals such as one intended to limit carbon use by factories that could classify large churches as major polluters.
Blackburn also wrote a letter to Obama in April stating, "In an era of ever mounting debt, a $2,500 prize for a YouTube video is truly not the best use of taxpayer dollars. I understand that in context of the trillions the federal government spends every year, $2,500 seems inconsequential. . . . However, $2,500.00 is the total tax contribution for a working American making just under $30,000 a year. Do you believe that taxpayer wants the entirety of his or her tax contribution to be given away as prize money for a YouTube video?"
In the letter, Blackburn urged Obama to tell the EPA administrator to withdraw the offer of prize money and dedicate the funds to a more worthy cause.
Olson said in a statement, "When Washington is spending billions upon billions for bailouts and failed economic recovery efforts to quench a tax and spend agenda, $30,000 may seem like barely a drop in the bucket. But in Texas, we know that a thousand here and a thousand there starts to add up to real money that families should be spending where they see fit, not where Washington bureaucrats want to."
Duncan Brown, the new director of e-rule-making at EPA, disagreed. "I don't think it's a waste of taxpayers' money," he said. "It would cost thousands and thousands of dollars to produce the quality [level] of videos we're getting." EPA is expected to announce a winner for the video contest on June 30.
In responding to criticisms about the number of video contests, EPA spokeswoman Tisha Petteway said, "Like several of our sister agencies, we view these contests as innovative ways to engage the public and raise awareness of issues like radon and lead poisoning in the home."
Tens of thousands of Americans have viewed the videos and EPA will continue to apply such multimedia, multiplatform strategies, she added. The Regulations.gov prize was funded by 35 agencies, with each contributing $71.46 because rulemaking is a governmentwide effort, EPA officials said.
According to its contest rules, EPA said it reserves the right not to award a prize if the agency considers none of the entries as meeting the criteria.
White House officials stood by the merits of using financial incentives to improve performance in government. "While a productivity boom has transformed private sector performance over the past two decades, the federal government has almost entirely missed this transformation and now lags far behind on efficiency and service quality," OMB spokeswoman Jean Weinberg said. The administration intends to close the gap, she added.
"We are driving efforts to promote and harness innovative ideas from both within and outside the government's four walls, and we believe that contests and prizes are one of the many important tools for doing so," she said. Contests allow an agency to establish an important, ambitious goal without having to identify and confine itself to a specific action plan, she added.
"This greatly increases the chances of breakthrough innovations and creative solutions," Weinberg said. "Another tangible benefit of using contests and prizes is that they pay only for results."
Meanwhile, the Federal Register is getting a makeover next month. To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the government is reformatting the journal's dense, laundry-list of agency notices. Under existing laws, the Federal Register does not have the authority to rewrite the titles, summaries and comments of rules in plain English, said Managing Editor Michael White. But it can -- and is -- retooling the placement of the information online to make the documents easier to read.
"We're going to have sections much like a newspaper," White said. Rules will be organized by topic areas and important documents will stay at the top of the Federal Register's home page for days. In addition, the most viewed and most e-mailed regulations will be highlighted.
The site will be open source, or coded in a way that allows the public to replicate and modify the original software at no charge. Also, all information will be available in Extensible Markup Language, a standard format for exchanging information over the Internet.
"This is sort of a combination of USA Today and USA.gov," added White, referring to the home page of the federal government.