Can offering a prize help fix some of California’s problems? We just may find out. Over the last week, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Singularity University in the Silicon Valley announced a contest to seek solutions to confront the drought and the state’s water supply. At the same time Tim Draper’s Fix California Challenge went into its final phase announcing the four finalists that hope to find a way onto the California ballot.

Changing public policy by offering prizes is not the way it’s suppose to be done according to political science textbooks. Offering prizes as incentives has helped overcome other challenges – Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic, for example — but that is not the path governments follow.

The Singularity University contest is looking for innovative use of technology to confront the state’s water crisis. The contest offers three winning teams $5,000 plus space at Singularity’s start–up labs working with other tech specialists. An additional three teams deemed runner-ups would have an opportunity to pitch their ideas to the Singularity Labs community seeking start-up support and funding.

The four finalists in Draper’s effort to find solutions for California’s problems are a transparency proposal for legislative action; the Neighborhood Legislature proposal of 10,000 legislators that has already been submitted as a ballot initiative; a requirement that a law be removed from the books before a new law is enacted; and in a variation on Draper’s failed attempt to divide California into six states, a proposal to eliminate most of the state’s counties so there will only be six–a form of regional government.

The winning proposal could receive financial help to qualify the idea as a ballot initiative.

Is this anyway to run a railroad?

Why not?

Ideally, policy changes should be debated and fashioned in an open and deliberative way. The truth is many changes in law are worked out behind closed doors between interested parties before public deliberations begin and can alter the proposed law’s course. Gaining attention for a new law through a contest is not the end game. Ultimately, interests will have input and voters will have the final say.

Offering a prize to come up with an innovative strategy to deal with serious problems like water and the drought without costing public dollars does no harm and can do good if it brings results.

Can offering prizes go too far? Yes—offering a cash reward for voting as was proposed but rejected at the recent Los Angeles election.