For those of us interested in improving civic engagement here in California, the latest news from the state auditor that the Secretary of State has mismanaged $131 million in federal funds for California meant to improve our voting access is cause for weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The monies were allocated by the feds under the HAVA (Help America Vote Act), which was signed — somewhat ironically — in 2002 by President George W. Bush in order to avoid more “dangling chad” scenarios in future elections.

In a report titled “Office of the Secretary of State: It Must Do More to Ensure Funds Provided Under the Federal Help America Vote Act Are Spent Effectively,” the auditor outlines a series of disappointments at the Secretary of State’s Office — from unspent funds to more than $20 million spent by county registrars on projects that were later scuttled or delayed by the secretary of state.

What is it with these HAVA funds in California? They were at the root of taking down one Democratic secretary of state who spent them improperly (Kevin Shelley), and now they’re tarnishing the image of another for not spending them.

But I’m not here to bury the secretary of state; I have an idea.

The use of competitions to drive innovative solutions to policy challenges is exploding. From the federal government’s “Race to the Top” program, which offers billions of dollars to states that offer the best education reform ideas, to local “hackathons” throughout California where techies compete to develop the best uses of the city’s open data, policy competitions are another example of the changing relationship between government and citizens, and are based on the fundamental American (and even more fundamentally Californian) principles of ingenuity and competition.

I have witnessed the power of competitions myself, leading the Davenport Institute’s “Public Engagement Grant Program” for the last six years. Offering even small grants (most are between $2,500 and $10,000) to municipal governments and civic organizations throughout California has sparked some of the most creative public policy-making processes in the country. From a year-long effort to engage residents on a water policy issue in Humboldt County to a smaller effort to involve youth in formulating programs in La Mesa, competitions drive creativity and promote the work you’re trying to accomplish.

So here’s my idea: let’s take, say, $10 million out of that pile of cash and create a multi-part “Eureka Prize for Civic Participation” (full disclosure: the “Eureka Prize” idea has been a part of my campaign platform for a couple months). Based in the Secretary of State’s Office, the prizes would be an initial investment offered for the best ideas in the HAVA categories — from the development of a VoteCal voter database that actually works to finding ways technology can better inform voters to the testing of new voting systems (including absentee) that use the best technology while providing the highest levels of security.

As the nonpartisan Pew Center evaluated in their Elections Performance Index, California has room for improvement. From the large amount of absentee ballots we reject to our poor implementation of online voter tools, we could use California inventiveness to improve our civic health.

A competition should meet HAVA guidelines on using the funds for “research and development” on efforts that either increase participation or better inform voters. “Race to the Top” already has established the practice of delegating federal funds through competition to promote innovation. And, again, the “prizes” would be part of the investment in delivering the innovation.

While the news of mismanagement could be seen as another bureaucratic boondoggle at the state Capitol, these unspent funds are an incredible opportunity.

It has been clear for a long time that most of this state’s problem solvers live outside of Sacramento. Let’s engage them, and in so doing, engage all Californians.

Originally published in the Fresno Bee