Connecting state and local government leaders
Missouri has a way for frontline state employees to pitch ideas to high-level judges in hopes of getting them implemented. It's based on a reality TV show.
Employee input is a great way to drive improvement within public agencies. Yet much of the brainstorming for innovation in state and local government takes place at the upper echelons of departments, where participants see the world from the so-called 30,000-foot view.
What’s frequently missing is the opportunity for frontline workers to share their ideas. Managers often don’t have time to hash over fresh ideas from the trenches. Meanwhile, “suggestion box”-style efforts we’ve researched have yielded more failure than success. Too often, employees who offer up solutions are unsure they’ll ever even be considered by anyone, never mind adopted.
In Missouri, leaders are trying to overcome these obstacles with an initiative inspired by “Shark Tank.” That’s the television show in which entrepreneurs try to convince a panel of business tycoons to invest their money on the basis of a pitch. Missouri’s one-of-a-kind initiative, dubbed the Show Me Challenge, was designed to solicit, evaluate and reward actionable ideas in government from state employees.
“But it’s not cutthroat like the investors in the television show,” says Danielle Briot, Show Me Challenge coordinator
State employees who participate in the Challenge enter into a multi-step process, which begins with teams of three to eight people who put together the details of an idea they think has merit. In order to make a submission, they need to be able to clearly identify the problem they are addressing, the root cause of the problem, the proposed solution and how the results of their solution can be measured.
When the ideas are submitted, the process works like this, according to the Show Me Challenge website:
- A selection committee reviews the pitches and narrows the pool to about 10 finalist teams.
- For a couple of months, the finalist teams fully develop their proposed solutions.
- Teams deliver in-person pitches and final presentations to a panel of judges made up of senior leaders, followed by a Q&A session in a “Shark Tank” setting.
- Winners will be chosen based upon the quality of their solutions and their final presentation.
Team members who bring in winning ideas get a cash reward ($1,000 apiece for first place, $500 for second place and so on). But Briot says money doesn’t appear to be the main incentive for many teams and that they’re instead motivated by “the opportunity to get in front of senior leaders and show them the great ideas they have.
“They believe in their ideas and they want to gain support for them,” she adds.
The Challenge began back in 2019, at a time when the state had a long-standing program to bring in ideas from employees but, according to Cindy Dixon, director of operational excellence, “it was simply a tired suggestion system that had been in place for decades, and it wasn’t highly utilized or promoted.”
Team members who participate in the Show Me Challenge have to be willing to put in a great deal of time and effort developing and refining their ideas and then preparing to deliver their pitches, which can only last for five minutes followed by a five-minute Q&A session. The formats for the pitches vary, but typically they use slides accompanied by a presentation. The teams are coached on their pitches by Operational Excellence Leaders, in the sixteen executive branch agencies, who are available to talk with all employees about a variety of topics like potential continuous improvement projects.
Presentations can be intimidating, as the judges are in high level jobs in state government and team members would rarely have the chance to pitch an idea directly to them. “It’s very intense,” says Dawn Sweazea, director of talent acquisition for Missouri, whose team proposed a statewide employee referral program that aimed to increase the number of job applicants referred by existing state employees, from the currently low level of 10%, by offering $500 to employees who successfully refer other people to enter the state workforce. Her team made the case that, by optimizing referrals as a pipeline to the workforce, the state could save $12 million.
“We practiced our pitch a lot,” says Sweazea, “and tried to get in front of different audiences to see what the questions from the judges might be. As a result, we were well prepared, so we didn’t have trouble with the questions. We originally had a video that we were going to incorporate because we wanted visual appeal. But then we decided to scrap that because it was distracting.”
Judging day fell on a Monday, and the teams were told that they were going to hear whether they were a winner on Wednesday. “That day was interesting,” says Sweazea. “The longer we didn’t hear anything, I was thinking we didn’t get it because I was assuming the winners would hear first and then they’d let the rest of us know later in the day. So, I was thinking we hadn’t gotten it. Then at 3:30, a co-worker texted me. We won! Tears sprung to my eyes, and I wished the whole team was together in the same space, instead of a series of virtual high-fives.”
Currently that team, and the other winners are working to turn their ideas into reality. Of course, despite all the effort that goes into the Show Me Challenge ideas, there’s no guarantee that they will be successfully put into action, any more than any other idea proposed by a cabinet member or a legislator. But of the seven finalists in the 2021 Show Me challenge, five of the ideas are either in progress or fully implemented. In all cases, teams that win the Show Me Challenge, are able to continue their efforts to implement their ideas with support from people high up in state government. So they begin their journey from idea to completed program or process with plenty of support.
Winners of the Show Me Challenge aren’t guaranteed funding from the state in order to implement their ideas. But as Jessie Pace, manager of talent acquisition in Missouri, who headed the team, notes: “Winning gave us the ability to get to the right people in state government and ask the questions we needed to have answered.”
“Right now, the focus for us is on solidifying the approach and gathering funding to build the necessary automation, and then our pilot group is set to start in December,” Pace adds.
Other states may be taking note. Briot says the Show Me Challenge came up at a recent National Association of State Chief Administrators conference. “All the other states were very excited about our concept,” she says. “We have now been reached out to by some of the presenters at the conference and they’re excited to share about what we’ve been doing in Missouri.”