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YourCountryYourCall: Ideas galore, but not without controversy

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Over 9,000 proposals have been received in the Your Country, Your Call competition, which closed for entries late last month.

The competition sought to “identify and reward two proposals so big that, when implemented, they can help to secure prosperity and jobs for this and future generations”. It was intended to “rekindle our sense of creativity, our capability to take positive action, and thus generate hope and confidence”.

At Dublin’s Ignite 3 event, Padraig McKeon, Director of Drury Communications and a member of the competition’s steering group, explained what they were looking for in a proposal. The focus should be on ‘new models, types of business or service, or new opportunities within existing industries or service areas’. The Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) and the co-operative movement were suggested as representing game-changing ideas exemplifying the radical thinking being sought through the competition.

The two winners will get €100,000 each and a development fund of €500,000 to implement their idea.

The competition has received widespread media coverage over the past few months, and has been advertised extensively in the national press, on radio, television and online. It has been featured on national tv – see RTE’s feature below – and has generated much heated debate in blogs and discussion forums.

As mentioned in the television feature above, not all of the debate around the competition has been positive. Criticism has been expressed online and in the national press surrounding aspects of the competition website, terms and conditions and public funding of the initiative.

Website Controversy

The domain itself (yourcountryyourcall.com) was registered by Allied Irish Bank (one of the largest banks in the country). Padraig McKeon, a member of the competition’s steering group, states in the interview below that this was purely for administrative purposes. Nevertheless, it does seem strange that a financial institution would be registrar of the competition and so closely linked to its inception. Many people feel it ironic the bank would be supporting a competition aimed at economic recovery, when it is so closely associated with the Irish economic collapse, and has had itself to be recapitalised by the government.

Also, Cisco’s involvement in the competition has been questioned. The website was provided free of charge from Cisco and appears to be hosted on their servers – see http://www.cisco.com/web/IRE/yourcountryyourcall/index.html. As the site –  and the Brightidea platform – were provided as a gift, McKeon admits they were constrained by the technology and infrastructure made available to them. ‘The website was provided to us for free by Cisco’ he says, adding that if they had designed the technology themselves they would have done many things differently.

Competition Terms and Conditions

There have also been issues over the apparently contradictory claims relating to Intellectual Property (IP) in the competition’s Terms and Conditions. Who eventually owns the IP of all ideas submitted is unclear. While questions relating to this have been answered by Mr McKeon, it does leave suspicion around the status of ideas put forward on the platform and the involvement of those running the initiative i.e. An Smaoineamh Mór, the company behind the initiative .

Competition funding

What is striking from the interview above is the number of people involved in the project. McKeon mentions (4.12 – 5:28) there are about 60 people working on the project, primarily in the communications area. These range from people involved in advertising, media, television production and social media.

Given the large numbers of people involved in the running of the competition it’s not surprising that the costs are upwards of €2m. Estimates suggest the entire project would have cost €5m if organisers and advertisers hadn’t waived fees (organisers  insist all advertising has been given free).

Simon McGarr and others have raised questions regarding how the funding for the competition has been raised. In response, Padraig McKeon – outlined some of the funding sources for An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd, which is the company running the competition.

A cash fund of just under €2m has been accumulated via donations from 13 parties (companies and individuals) which has been lodged in the accounts of the company, An Smaoineamh Mór, which is a registered charity…

There is no government or political involvement in either setting up or operating the competition. However YCYC is not merely ’suggesting’ it has Government support. The project explicitly has that support. Specifically, the promoters formally presented the project to government late last summer and asked for support in three ways – a contribution to the fund referred above, a request that the competition would have access if it needed it to the services of the state enterprise agencies in the evaluation process (if such help were required) and a commitment that government would engage with the process of developing the two winning proposals, particularly with reference to any legislative issues that might need to be addressed.

It agreed to all three requests – it will be contributing 15% of the fund; there has been no requirement to this point for the involvement of the state agencies and clearly there is no need for development support at this point.

These questions over the finances of the competition were outlined in the Irish Times, with a response from the organisation clarifying a couple of important points:

  • The Government agreed to contribute €300,000, but has no direct role in running the competition or determining the outcome. (Full details on this are vague as in March the Minister involved suggested her Department was simply examining this proposal)
  • An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd will not exploit or commercialise any intellectual property for its own financial benefit, or the benefit of anyone associated with running the competition who is giving their time on a pro bono basis.

Daragh O’Brien, a blogger on Information Management questioned whether this government money would have been better invested in county enterprise boards and campus incubators with a good track record of establishing new companies:

Perhaps a hybrid of the current competition and the existing structures is what we actually need — but YCYC as a stand-alone event strikes me as a potential waste of taxpayers’ money.

Quantity and Quality of ideas

The competition has generated a significant number of proposals, and this week the organisers have started running advertisements in the national press, thanking people for their participation in the competition. The announcement reads:

To the 177,000 visitors, from 176 countries and for the 9,000 plus proposals, we’d just like to say Thank you

Along with these proposals, there were over 11,000 comments and 35,000 votes submitted by over 20,000 registered users. In the last day alone some 1,800 proposals were submitted.

It is now up to the judging committee to filtering these proposals, and come up with a shortlist of feasible ideas by June.

The current crop of proposals contains a mixture of the good, the bad and the bizarre. Genuine game-changing ideas, however, are difficult to find amongst the rash of proposals that state the obvious e.g. we should cycle more, recycle more, encourage entrepreneurship, set up talent banks and promote Ireland as a green, organic country.

There are some genuine brainwaves, but few that provide a direct path towards ‘helping secure prosperity and jobs’. Many proposals are clever, if quirky, such as teaching children Mandarin or removing 1c and 2c coins from the mint. Some of the oddest ideas include:

One interesting suggestion that got coverage in the national press surrounded the building of a Monorail. The idea came straight out of a Simpsons episode in which Lyle Lanley suggests that the town construct a monorail. To this, Mayor Quimby replies:

Just tell us your idea and we’ll vote for it.

The amusing idea gathered widespread coverage on discussion boards and was humorously declared the best suggestion to date. Unfortunately, the idea has been removed from the Your Country, Your Call site, but this one idea probably got more young people talking about the competition than any other single advertising initiative during the campaign.

While it’s easy to be amused at some of the suggestions, others note that many are not just stupid, but illegal, and sometimes dangerous.

Interestingly, Padraig McKeon, admits that the quality of entries varied depending on whether they are submitted during the day or late at night. “That’s the nature of crowd sourcing,” he said. “But all we really want is to get 20 good ideas that can be whittled down to a final five and, eventually, two winners.”

Roisin Ingle analyzed the top ideas with the most support and asked experts for their views on whether these ideas could work. She also looked at comments from the public as to their appreciation of the feasibility of the ideas. This analysis makes for interesting reading as to the quality and viability of the top rated proposals. Top five by user votes are listed below:

1). IDEA: HELP SAVE THE HSE AND MILLIONS OF LIVES

John Donnelly proposes that low-dose naltrexone (LDN), a drug used in other countries to treat auto-immune-related illnesses such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Crohn’s disease and cancer, should be introduced and prescribed at low levels “by every doctor in Ireland”.

This proposals is not supported by the Irish Times expert, however, it’s received nearly 2,000 votes and hundreds of comments. While it maybe worthy of investigation, its not clear how this proposal would generate jobs or prosperity for the country.

2). IDEA: Ireland West 2020 – A Bright Green Future

The Engineering the West team proposed an Ireland West 2020 partnership which, working from a “sustainable framework”, would unlock the potential of the region in terms of natural and human resources.

The expert view – from Eddie O’Connor, chief executive of Mainstream Renewable Power – is that it is a “great idea”. There are many other ideas along a similar vein, but such themes of promoting renewable energy are already government policy and it’s uncertain how the competition funding resources would make a significant impression in this area.

3). IDEA: Work for Welfare payments

TP2010 proposes to force those in receipt of certain social welfare payments to work in under-resourced areas of government. It’s suggested this would improve workers’ skills and offer an alternative to “becoming depressed sitting at home”.

Brid O’Brien, head of policy with the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed explained how uninformed this idea is: “This idea shows a complete lack of awareness of the work already done by unemployed people within the voluntary and community sector in areas such as community employment schemes”.

Csullie, a commenter on the idea, agrees and says this “Harks back to the days of the workhouse and puts people out of work. Why employ people on a reasonable wage when we can get free slaves from the welfare system.”.

4). IDEA: Steal the UK’s computer games industry

DamienDamien suggests reclassifying developers of computer games as artists and thus exempt them from income tax under current rules.

Dave Gargan, vice-president of engineering with games developer Havok, offers cautious support for the idea but the challenge would be to build critical mass in this area. However, it’s unlikely the government would offer such incentives for one particular industry, over many others.

5). IDEA: An International Healthcare Services Centre (IHSC)

This involves the creation of an International Healthcare Services Centre (IHSC) dealing with exporting healthcare services overseas. The proposer, Joe Dalton, explains how smarter methods of healthcare delivery, such as telehealthcare and independent living systems could help alleviate rising healthcare costs associated with ageing populations and the rise of chronic diseases.

Experts such as Dr Muiris Houston pronounce this as “a brilliant idea,”. The concept is modeled on the Irish Financial Services Centre which was setup in the eighties under legislation designed to boost activity and employment in the Irish economy.

Next steps

Over the coming months, the judging panel will whittle down the entries to 20 semi-finalists and then select five finalists before the winners are announced. The two winning proposals are due to be announced on September 17th.

The judging panel, chaired by former EU Commissioner David Byrne, said it would be looking for ideas that had the potential to transform the economy by creating sustainable jobs and opportunity.

However, no-one is under any illusion that any single idea will have the potential to ‘transform the economy’ or make serious inroads into the country’s serious unemployment crisis. Ireland has the third highest unemployment rate in the OECD, and it’s difficult to see many of the ideas above significantly impacting this.

While it’s easy to criticise many aspects of the competition – and many of the proposals – it has a least generated some enthusiasm and creativity amongst the public for new ideas to get the country ‘back on its feet’.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Daragh O BrienNo Gravatar 12/05/2010, 11:15 am

    Hi

    Thanks for the name check. I enjoyed reading your piece but I’d like to point out that:

    a) there is no ambiguity about the IP issues. The terms and conditions of YCYC explicitly state at Section 7 that anyone submitting an idea assigns any IP in that idea to An Smaoineamh Mór for the duration of the competition and that the winners assign any such IP in perpetuity. What YCYC have done to down play this is to suggest that there would likely be very little IP in the winning ideas. That may well be the case but the simple fact remains that by submitting an idea to YCYC you assign any intellectual property you might have in it to them.

    (see Simon McGarr’s excellent post on this here)

    b) There is also no ambiguity about the funding situation from the Dept of Enterprise. The then Minister (Mary Coughlan) has stated on the Dáil record on 23rd March that there has been no agreement to provide funding and that the application was being considered and the amount which might be provided should the application be approved might not be €300k. This is despite the claims from YCYC since 6th March that they have funding of €300k agreed from the Department.

    Funding is a lot like pregnancy. You either are or you aren’t. You can’t be a little bit funded just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant. For YCYC to have had funds made available to them on or before the 23rd of March would require a Government Minister to have mislead the Dáil either by accident or design. One must assume that that did not happen and that there is some confusion on the YCYC side about the status of their application.

    Given that budgets in the County Enterprise Boards are rumoured to be facing another cut of up to 25%, there would need to be some serious questions asked if the Government provided funding to YCYC at the same time as swinging the axe to cut costs in those areas.

    As Simon McGarr said during the excellent radio debate with Professor Ferdinand von Prondynski from the YCYC steering committee, for the Dept of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation to be giving €300k to YCYC they would need to be taking at least €100k from each of Enterprise, Trade, or Innovation, and they’d be doing so without any public debate or tender for the use of those funds.

    If I, as a consultant/trainer, want to get a gig providing training via the CEBs or EI, or engaging in consulting with any Govt agency, I need to submit a response to a tender and be vetted- YCYC should be no different where taxpayers’ money is concerned.

    If money has been provided from the Department subsequent to the March 23rd reply I’d be interested to know what budgets under the Minister’s control has the money been taken from and what forms of existing enterprise support might suffer as a result (or is this money being found through “efficiencies”?)

  • Padraig McKeonNo Gravatar 12/05/2010, 1:04 pm

    Good ramble through the first ten weeks of YCYC and thanks for coming back to it three months on from your post the week after launch. A few quick points.

    In the posts regarding the registration of the website I pointed out that at the time when we chose the name and wanted to get the domain registered, YCYC had no resources or people in place and therefore asked AIB to register it with the intention of transferring it to the YCYC company once that was up and running. That has now happened as can be seen if one follows the links you have provided through the Tuppence blog.

    For the avoidance of any doubt, none of those contributing to YCYC or of those involved in the creation or running of the project will have any involvement in the judging process – that is a separate and discreet process. Equally the Irish Times article of Apr 29, some of which you have quoted but which is not under the link provided above (see here – http://is.gd/c6grK) makes that clear –

    “The competition’s corporate organisation, An Smaoineamh Mór Ltd, will
    not, either on its own behalf or through any corporate entity it controls or is
    associated with, benefit financially from the development of the winning
    proposals. The intention is, rather, that it will co-ordinate the design,
    operation, and implementation of these proposals, with the aim of ensuring
    that in doing so it will open up opportunities for national economic growth”

    That article deals also with the question raised on IP and it is important to be clear that with the notable exception of the two eventual winners who will each receive a cash sum of €100,000, there are no rights surrendered or lost by any participant. Again from the Irish Times of April 29

    “The chief objective is to ensure the winning proposals are developed in the
    national interest, rather than in the commercial interests of specific
    companies, organisations or individuals. The transfer of intellectual
    property rights is necessary to ensure the implementation cannot be
    compromised or stalled by legal disputes about who owns the proposal…

    … An Smaoineamh Mór will not itself enter into any business or commercial
    activity, nor will it exploit intellectual property rights for its own financial or
    other benefit, or the benefit of anyone associated with it or with the running
    of the competition. All entrants with proposals that do not end up as winners
    will retain full intellectual property rights to their ideas”

    You refer to the costs and the people working on the project. To be very clear everyone, in all the areas of input required, worked for nothing. All of the services referred were delivered and provided free of charge and all of the media likewise. There are some material costs that have and will be incurred but none of those involved have been paid for their services or time. In terms of the use of the fund, €1.2m of the €2m is for the winners and the development of their ideas. Any surplus that exists when that has been discharged and all material costs have been covered will be put back into progressing the proposals coming out of the competition and the discharge of that will be reported on.

    Thanks again for the review,

  • Padraig McKeonNo Gravatar 12/05/2010, 1:47 pm

    I hadn’t seen the response from Daragh before my comment.

    The words he uses “there is no ambiguity about the IP issues” are correct except that he continues to create an ambiguity by misrepresenting the simple fact that has been repeated many times by I and other representatives of YCYC. Let me put it another way. There are 9,100 entries currently being considered by the YCYC judges. The rights of 9,098 of those will not be affected in any way – high or holy – by their involvement in the competition. The other two will get €100,000 each.

    In respect of the funding there will quite correctly have to be a frame around what is provided that will ensure its correct and proper use. Despite the attempts to confuse people on that matter, I am satisfied that there is no conflict between what we have said before that the Government has agreed to give €300,000 to the YCYC fund and the statement of the Minister in the House.

    I appreciate that all of these issues are raised in good faith but it is worth noting that what YCYC is looking to identify as a proposal for development is totally different from that which might be presented to a CEB or EI. YCYC is about finding two concepts, an idea, something to be explored further rather than a specific plan for a business or a company. The two are simply not the same. One can think more of one than the other but that is not to take away from the validity of either.

  • Richard FaheyNo Gravatar 13/05/2010, 12:57 pm

    Thanks for clarifying things and providing the correct link to Ferdinand Von Prondzynski’s response in the Irish Times. I’ve since updated the links.

  • Richard FaheyNo Gravatar 13/05/2010, 1:20 pm

    Thanks for the great comment Daragh, and for explaining across the info about County Enterprise Boards and Enterprise Ireland. I guess once we see the shortlist of ideas over the summer it’ll be easier to make a judgment on whether this government investment was money well spent.

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