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A Great Idea to Improve U.S. Government Could Net You $50,000

A worldwide contest judged by a panel of luminaries is looking for the most innovative, problem-solving and cost-saving proposal that’s centered on technology.

Have a great idea on how to use IT to improve the U.S. government? A new competition has 50,000 reasons why you should speak up.

Called the Merit Awards, the worldwide contest has a $50,000 prize for the most innovative, problem-solving and cost-saving proposal that’s centered on technology. Submissions can be entered online at or through a tweet to @meritalk. The contest ends on Monday, Aug. 1.

The contest is structured in eight categories — citizen engagement, defense, emergency response, entitlement reform, work force management and motivation, back office operations, results achievement and waste. One winner will be selected in each category, but only one entry will win the monetary award.

“The goal is to cut away ‘cholesterol’ here,” explained Steve O’Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk, an online government community that is hosting the competition. “This is a different type of program and [we’re] trying not to be prescriptive on how or what people enter. We want as broad of a church as possible in terms of ideas.”

Each proposal will be evaluated by a panel of technical and governmental experts, who will examine the idea’s originality, practicality and whether it can save money if implemented. The judges include:

  • Vinton “Vint” Cerf from Google;
  • Congressman Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va.;
  • Honorable Thomas M. Davis III;
  • Honorable Mark Forman, the first administrator of e-government and IT for the U.S. Office of Management and Budget;
  • Federal CIO Vivek Kundra;
  • Steve O’Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk; and
  • Tom Soderstrom, IT chief technology officer for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Cerf, a renowned computer scientist widely known as one of the “fathers” of the Internet, said the wide-open nature of the competition should lead to ideas that improve domestic government operations and possibly international interaction.

“If it’s an absolutely great idea that requires the repeal of the laws of physics, I’ll probably say that’s a nice idea and move on,” Cerf admitted. “So interoperability is an important element ... [but] from a practical standpoint, if it saves money and you can execute, that’s awfully persuasive right there.”

While a changing budgetary landscape and the need to do more with less are key drivers of the competition, Cerf believed ideas for the contest would be generated by those unhappy with some element of U.S. government operations.

“Someone needs to be discontented with the status quo in order for something to happen. Otherwise, you sit around fat, dumb and lazy,” Cerf said. “So my sense is, the kinds of actionable ideas that will come in will be from someone who isn’t satisfied. ... Malcontents make the world go ’round.”

MeriTalk will announce the award winners at the Innovation Nation Forum on Aug. 23 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.