Government challenges superhero

How challenges help government innovate

Challenge.gov, launched in September 2010, has become a one-stop shop for agencies looking for ways to use prizes and public challenges to encourage citizens to help solve government problems.

By September 2013, the site featured more than 280 competitions from more than 45 federal agencies, according to Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for grand challenges in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, writing on the White House blog.

In its third annual report on the state of challenges, Implementation of Federal Prize Authority: Fiscal Year 2013 Progress Report, OSTP describes new ways competitions might be structured to improve successful outcomes. The OSTP report encourages agencies to test new ways to set up competitions, including:

  • Establish an ambitious goal.
  • Pay only for success without having to predict which approach is most likely to succeed.
  • Reach beyond the “usual suspects” to increase the number of solvers tackling a problem.
  • Bring non-traditional or “out-of-discipline” perspectives to bear.

According to OSTP report, the number of competitions and the size of prize purses have grown in recent years. In 2013, for instance, 11 competitions had prize purses of $100,000 or greater.  

Challenges are increasingly being used to identify novel solutions, said OSTP, and more prizes have been awarded for low-cost software and IT solutions. Along those lines, the report found that nearly half of the prizes in fiscal year 2013 sought software solutions including apps, data visualization tools, and predictive models and algorithms.

Challenge managers are also experimenting with new ways to engage the public to participate in competitions. Among the methods the report found and recommended:

  • The use of “co-design” online platforms to integrate user needs into the design of solutions.
  • Publication of winning solutions as open source resources.
  • The use of crowdfunding to support entrants.
  • The use of physical and virtual forums to allow entrants to discuss, develop, and improve solutions.

According to Dorgelo’s blog, agencies’ progress with challenges is also “due to important steps that the Obama administration has taken to make prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox.”

The administration’s September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation called on all agencies to increase their use of prizes to address national challenges. In addition, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 gave agencies expanded authority to pursue prizes with robust incentives.

To support such challenges, Dorgelo wrote, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, online resources, and an active community of practice.

GSA offers a variety of resources for hosting a challenge, and it has recently added an "ideation platform" -- a WordPress-based challenge building tool -- to help agencies develop their own external, public-facing crowd sourcing competitions.

To participate in a challenge, federal employees can use their PIV card to log into Challenge.sites.usa.gov to post a challenge in a non-public area. The tool walks users through the challenge building process.

Challenges built with the GSA tool not only help the agencies running the contest but also support participants who now have an easy-to-use entry form. For more information, watch GSA’s Challenge.sites.usa.gov: A Federal Crowdsourcing Tool demo on YouTube.

NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation also provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with new methods before standing up their own services.

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