Award schemes have proliferated in the public sector worldwide – yet there is little analysis of their role in improving public services through celebrating performance and sharing good practice. This paper theorizes this development, establishing a research agenda to examine the functioning, attractiveness and effectiveness of award schemes, which may be classified as being threshold or competitive schemes. The paper examines a major English competitive award, the Beacon Scheme, and focuses initially on its attractiveness to applicants. The research constructed a database of applications and awards of all English local authorities over six years as well as using interviews and observation. The analysis examined trends over a changing policy context, along with differences in application rates across eligible authorities and perceptions of the scheme. The analysis is used inductively to construct criteria by which the attractiveness of award schemes and their effectiveness in service improvement can be conceptualized.