Penn Wins 2nd Annual National Public Policy Challenge amid Tough Competition

Tue, 2013-03-19 14:20

By Kelliston McDowell, MPA '14

Now a yearly event, the Penn Fels Institute of Government’s second annual National Invitational Public Policy Challenge had it all. There was the impressive venue at the National Constitution Center, an esteemed panel of judges, and thought-provoking policy proposals - plus about twice the number of teams than that of the inaugural challenge.

“This was basically a doubling in size of the competition. Last year we invited four schools to compete against Penn, and this year we had eight,” said Public Policy Challenge Executive Director Sarah Besnoff. “And what we saw was just an amazing sharing of ideas. All nine teams had fantastic ideas of great value to their communities.”

The nine teams from top universities spanning the country competed in the initial round on Saturday, March 16. From that pool, four finalists were chosen for Sunday’s final competition. All four of the finalist teams won $5,000 to support their proposals.  After the four interactive presentations, re:Mind of the University of Pennsylvania emerged as the winner.

Fels Institute Executive Director David Thornburgh said, “re:Mind, through their presentation and their responses to the questions, clearly knew their stuff. They were excited about what they were doing, and did a great job reaching out to leadership in the community and the city.”

re:Mind’s proposal involves an appointment reminder system for mental health patients, with the ultimate goal of curbing the number of costly and preventable re-hospitalizations. On the eve of the competition, the team officially partnered with Community Behavioral Health (CBH), a not-for-profit 501c (3) corporation contracted by the City of Philadelphia for mental health services.

“We just received confirmation on Friday [March 15th] that CBH will partner with us,” said Meghan O’Brien, an MD/Master in Bioethics Candidate and lead presenter of re:Mind. “We’re hoping to use some of the funds from the winnings to really get re:Mind off the ground and running, and do that in collaboration with CBH so that we can move this forward."

“Then, hopefully we can create a solid framework for a local model that can be recreated in other realms of healthcare and nationally.”

re:Mind won the $15,000 grand prize. Those sums supplement the $10,000 that the team previously obtained by winning the Penn Public Policy Challenge Finals.

“We've definitely gotten further than we expected in only three months,” said Kayla Cheatham, a Master of Social Work candidate and member of re:Mind. “It is an initiative where we’re hoping that even in the next week there will already be groundbreaking.”

Among the runners-up was PATCH, representing the University of Georgia’s School of Public & International Affairs. Through the establishment of an online networking site, PATCH hopes to better connect the more than 300 nonprofit organizations in Athens, Georgia. From there, critical human services can be better provided for people in need.

“Our team has really enjoyed the process,” said PATCH’s Grace Bagwell. “We've been working for about four months on the idea. In terms of implementation, thus far, we've completed the web design phase, and also some consultations with public relations specialists to fund a media campaign.

“From here, I'm assuming that we're going to take the prize money we won, in part, to cover the costs of a web programmer, which is the next step in implementation.”

Another finalist was the Home Energy-Efficiency Services Agreements (HESA) proposal from Effortless Energy, representing the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. HESAs involve the adoption of a new contract structure that helps homeowners afford energy efficient retrofits for their homes.

Effortless Energy has entered its proposal in multiple clean energy and venture funding opportunities. However, this contest provided a different type of perspective.

“The National Public Policy challenge was, for us, a great time to talk to and see how our idea plays with public policymakers,” said Effortless Energy’s Claire Tramm. “This was a good learning opportunity for us.”

CluedIn, a team from New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, introduced its proposal for a user-friendly website that provides a comprehensive and interactive database of afterschool programs.

The team’s presentation impressed upon William Johnson. A judge in the competition and now a Professor of Public Policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, Johnson is formerly the Mayor of Rochester, New York. He declared that he would pass along the proposal to his friend, New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

“Even though we didn’t win, we ended up with a great contact with Mayor Johnson,” said CluedIn’s Rachel Szala. “He’s going to introduce us to the Chancellor of Education in New York City, and hopefully get us a meeting within the [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg Administration, which in and of itself is a huge win for us.”

The multi-faceted role of the judges was a recurring theme during the national invitational.

“An ideal judge of the PPC is part mentor, part collaborator, and part convener,” Besnoff explained. “In many ways, the judges are kind of the tipping point for these ideas. It’s about getting one judge on our panel involved. That can be the actual catalyst, even beyond the prize money.”

“The judges were amazing because they were so willing to provide feedback,” said re:Mind’s Dan Bernick, a Penn undergraduate and submatriculant to Fels. “They really had incredible insight from their backgrounds in public policy. Things we wouldn’t have thought of, they thought for us and made our idea even stronger than it was before.”

Among the distinguished panel of judges was John Gregg, former Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives and a gubernatorial nominee in 2012.

“I was impressed with everybody’s ideas,” Gregg recalled. “It wasn’t an easy decision. In fact, one of the judges said, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to decide this by myself.”

“What I liked about the ideas was they were all doable, they were all achievable, and they were all implementable. Some of them didn’t have big price tags, and I think that’s just great.”

“This has been a significant process, and it really speaks to the level and the quality of students that are coming out of the various schools of public administration,” said Robert Bobb, a judge and 1993 GOVERNING Public Official of the Year winner for his time as City Manager of Oakland, California.

“It really gives great confidence to the future of public administration; we're going to have tremendous talent.”
In addition to Bobb, Gregg, and Johnson, the panel consisted of even more GOVERNING Public Official of the Year honorees (with accompanying position from time of award): John Carrow, former CIO of Philadelphia; Tricia Leddy, Administrator for the Rhode Island Center for Child & Family Health; William Leighty, former chief-of-staff to Governor Mark Warner of Virginia; and Beverly Stein, former Chair of the County Commission for Multnomah County, Oregon.

Rounding out the judges’ panel were Alexandra Meis of Kinvolved, the 2012 Challenge winner, and the Chief Content Officer of GOVERNING Media, Paul W. Taylor.

The remaining teams that participated in the national invitational included Aim Higher from the H. John Heinz III College at Carnegie Mellon University, ReliefMap of Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, SAVY from the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, Policy in Motion from the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and Service-Teaching United of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University.

“The national competition will continue to get bigger and better next year,” said Thornburgh. “It’s really cool to see how people think through these challenges and the solutions they come up with. The signal we get from other schools is that they love this.”