There have been a lot of bad ideas from government officials this past year, knee-jerk responses to national crises or hotheaded proposals that cooled in the wake of the midterm elections. There was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal's ferocious embrace of sand berms, the man-made islands designed to protect his state from the Gulf oil spill that wound up wasting millions of dollars and invaluable time.
There was the sudden rallying cry to rewrite the 14th Amendment, the Virginia attorney general's witch hunt of academic research, and that dubious scheme to spend stimulus money on stimulus road signs.
But some quietly good — and nonpartisan — ideas have also been reshaping Washington over the past year in ways that will resonate beyond 2010, impacting both how policy is made and who gets to influence it. Here are a few ideas worth toasting:
1. Prizes. Government has elevated the art of crowd-sourcing cheap policy solutions — from bureaucrats and the general public alike — through contests. In trying to tap what the President calls the nation's "distributed intelligence," the White House admits it's following the private sector, which according to a recent study debuted more than 60 $100,000-plus prize competitions between 2000 and 2007.
The new America COMPETES Act, passed by Congress Dec. 21, grants every government agency broad authority to dangle prizes for the best new technologies, ideas and innovations. Meanwhile, the House GOP has deployed its own contest this year to engage citizens in the project of trying to cut wasteful government spending. There's no prize money involved in this one, but the weekly winner of "YouCut" has his or her idea brought to an up-or-down vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.
2. Labels. Government agencies have found all kinds of ways over the past year to spur beneficial outcomes without heavy-handed rules and regulations, simply by tweaking the labels that appear on everything from new cars to recyclable goods to food. Give people better information, and maybe they'll make better decisions — a principle on which liberals and conservatives can agree (and for which behavioral economists should be heavily credited). As an added bonus, label-tweaking is both politically more palatable and cheaper to implement than, say, raising taxes on gas-guzzling cars, or imposing fat restrictions on fast food.
One report this year from the Institute of Medicine and Food and Drug Administration, for example, concluded that Americans could improve their diets if front-of-package food labels at the grocery store were simplified to focus on consumers' greatest concerns — saturated fat, transfats and sodium.
3. Logs. As government attempts to grow more transparent, a slew of logs that have never been readily accessible to the public have come online this past year. The Obama administration began releasing White House visitor logs. The government now publishes the names and dollar figures for subcontracting companies that do work on the taxpayer dime. And the EPA has opened up to scientists and concerned citizens a searchable, downloadable database of 30 years of toxicity testing results on hazardous chemicals.
4. Twitter. Elected officials have made themselves more accessible (and vulnerable?) on Twitter this past year, while the growing field of social media research has made tracking political misinformation campaigns on Twitter possible. In a testament to the power of both politicians who love to tweet and the network's anonymous denizens, an analysis by Wired found that political candidates with the most Twitter followers won a majority of gubernatorial races this fall. Less famous tweeters have also, this past year, found their way into the Library of Congress.
5. No-brainers. Comedy Central's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the National Mall this fall shook up Washington, although it wasn't entirely clear to what end. But there's no doubting that comedian Jon Stewart is largely responsible for the 11th-hour passage this month of a bill to fund health care for 9/11 emergency responders — or, as Stewart put it while advocating for the little-known legislation on his show, the "Least-We-Can-Do-No-Brainer Act of 2010." Whether Americans share Stewart's politics (and even if he insists he has none), there's something to be said for such an outsider successfully injecting reason into the U.S. Capitol.