During a recent lecture at Syracuse University, I asked the 100-plus graduate students in the Maxwell School public affairs program to answer a simple question: “Imagine the federal government budget is balanced and it miraculously finds an extra $100 million — how would you spend it?”

The energy was palpable as students broke into pairs to brainstorm ideas. Fifteen minutes later, they reported back with a range of awesome ideas including:

  • a best practice institute to combat homelessness;
  • a series of local government technology incubators tied to scholarship programs;
  • an education innovation fund that provides seed money and double down to accelerate successful projects; and
  • the most innovative — a complex new credit default swap option that would allow government to reap transaction charges instead of benefiting banks.

On a larger scale, GovLoop recently partnered with the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration Public Service Graduate Scholarship to ask aspiring government leaders the same question. The essay contest generated more than 170 entries that were narrowed down to 15 finalists, which were judged by a panel of professionals and GovLoop community members.

Evan White, a University of California, Berkeley, student took first place for Promise Neighborhoods for a Promising Future. He suggested allocating the millions to 10 communities that aim to eliminate poverty by taking a cradle-to-career approach with children.

“The racial achievement gap — which starts at age 2 — is a national disgrace,” White wrote. “Increasing student success will decrease the nation’s widening inequality gap, with attendant improvements in crime, health and levels of trust.”

Texas A&M student Mauricio Cifuentes won second place with his idea to put the money toward The Social Innovation Fund, which would go to local communities, matched dollar-for-dollar by the grantees and subgrantees, giving the $100 million a greater reach.

The program would target the most critical needy areas and channel funds directly to local communities through existing organizations, such as AIDS United and United Way chapters. “The idea is not to reinvent the wheel,” Cifuentes wrote, “but to use already established effective organizations and avoid creating more layers of bureaucratic red tape.”

Brian Footer of New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service was awarded third place for his idea to use the money to create a new grant program that would make funds available to communities that miss out on much-needed assistance.

“I believe government’s inherent social value is establishing services essential to provide basic human needs,” Footer wrote. “This, however, is not a mandate for government to deliver services. Rather government should be a coordinator of parties and resource, and no one understands the unique demands of each geographic community better than local government.”

Elected officials and government employees are tasked with creating solutions in the face of financial restrictions, and with budgets continuously shrinking, this task sometimes seems impossible.

I’m optimistic that governments will devise solutions to these complex problems. One simple way to get started is to begin to tap into the next generation of ideas coming out of universities and public policy programs — I think many of the answers are there.

Steve Ressler  |  Contributing Writer