Taking stock at the midpoint of the opening decade of the new century, it's worth noting that the people who make government work have been playing defense for most of the last five years. That could explain why they are so tired -- and why they have taken so little new ground lately.

The "urgent" now routinely overtakes the "important" as a matter of course. But all-tactical, all-the-time comes at a cost -- lurching from crisis to crisis causes even the most disciplined practitioner to take his or her eyes off the prize.

People will move heaven and earth for a prize when its intrinsic value exceeds its monetary reward because of an underlying, worthy challenge. Such was the intrinsic value of the first X Prize, the catalyst for a competition among teams around the world to dare to touch space.

With a pair of 124-mile round trips during a single week in October -- straight up, straight down -- the team behind SpaceShipOne took the $10 million prize. The X Prize is inherently strategic -- a modest investment to bring fresh thinking and new effort to intractable problems.

"The basic idea is that the X Prize for space flight taught or reaffirmed some previous lessons about how to jump-start fields and focus people around certain technological challenges," said James Clark, chairman of the World Technology Network (WTN), which is building on the initial success of the X Prize Foundation with an expanded suite of jointly branded awards.

By April, the WTN and the foundation will finalize the challenges for the next round of X Prizes with the help of visitors to the contest's Web site. They are likely to target what Clark calls "Holy Grails" in medicine (perhaps a cure for cancer) and technology (including artificial intelligence, virtual reality, teleportation and nanotechnology that actually work outside the lab).

The X Prizes are nothing if not ambitious. But they are also instructive as we look forward. SpaceShipOne effectively ended NASA's monopoly on space even while flying with Air Force technology on board, underscoring the malleability of public/private collaboration and the changing displacement threats that arrive unannounced in areas once thought the exclusive purview of government.

More importantly, the great lesson of the X Prize is to bring focus to problems and possibilities simultaneously. The e-government movement in the late 1990s had the same quality, but "e" is, by any reasonable measure, a little long in the tooth and in need of a refresh. In contrast to e-government, Y2K and homeland security focused exclusively on managing downside risk with little or no regard for new possibilities.

In an environment in which forward-leaning strategy has all but surrendered the field, "X" may be the last and best hope to succeed "e" as a focal point in the campaign for government modernization.

That leaves two questions.

First, could there be an X Prize for government transformation? Funding the monetary prize would be no trivial challenge, but the hard part actually may be giving it away. Myriad ethics rules intended to stop public officials from doing the wrong thing also erect barriers to doing the right thing.

The second question is the more interesting one: What "Holy Grail" might an X Prize for government transformation tackle? What would your staff say it should be? What would the citizens you serve say? It's a conversation worth having (even in the absence of a cash prize) because it helps focus on things you and your colleagues would do if you weren't so busy lurching from crisis to crisis.

The conversation begins by finishing a sentence that traces its origins, appropriately enough, to the days when the space program was the gold standard of innovation and problem solving: "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we ...?"

Your answers are most welcome at Paul W. Taylor, for which you earn our eternal gratitude, and an arbitrarily chosen winner will receive a really good cup of coffee -- except where prohibited by law.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer