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New White House Innovation Strategy Promotes Increase in Challenges and Prizes

Investing in the Building Blocks of Innovation chart from A Strategy For American Innovation by the National Economic Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy, October 2015

The White House released an updated Strategy for American Innovation last week, calling again on government to tap the American public’s brain trust to advance agency missions and address issues of national importance.

The revised strategy stresses the importance of initiatives like Challenge.gov, the official website for all federal incentive prize and challenge competitions, which have seen the participation of tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and citizen problem-solvers.

A Strategy For American Innovation by the National Economic Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy, October 2015
This latest installment of the plan, which first published in 2009, underscores the need for open innovation and public participation to solve critical problems. It pushes challenges and prizes to:

  • allow agencies to pay only for success;
  • reach beyond established government partners to increase the number and diversity of thinkers tackling a problem;
  • and maximize the return on taxpayer dollars.

The federal challenges and prizes community has grown and matured over the past five years, working tirelessly to support every agency with the resources it needs to carry out effective challenges.

As acquisition expert Steve Kelman noted in two recent blogs for Federal Computer Week, open innovation is already changing the way government does business. The Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government wrote that Challenge.gov “might be the most important innovation in the procurement system in recent memory.”

The program breaks down barriers to innovation procurement in government, he wrote in a second blog.

“Two of the barriers to change seen as particularly important in government are risk aversion and, relatedly, fear of making a mistake,” Kelman wrote. “Generalized risk aversion makes organizations worry about poking their heads up from the crowd too much. Here, GSA provides agencies with cover for trying something new; they can point to the governmentwide endorsement GSA sponsorship provides … If you want to change government, such organizations—both formal and informal—should be promoted and nurtured as important tools.”

GSA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and agencies are committed to increasing the number and sophistication of public-sector prizes.

Contracts and grants are a great way for government to partner with industry and academia, but they require organizations to know the ins and outs of doing business with the government, Jenn Gustetic, assistant director for open innovation at OSTP, told Federal News Radio in a recent interview.

“The beauty of prizes and challenges is that they’re open to individuals from around the country,” Gustetic said. “It’s about the best ideas and the best solutions and not about people understanding the insider processes to work with the federal government. They really do unlock whole new classes of and channels for engaging people in solving a variety of different problems that traditional government tools don’t easily and readily allow you to tap into.”

To help more agencies use challenges, GSA recently announced its first-ever mentorship program for challenges and prizes. A stable of 20 experts are making themselves available to anyone seeking advice on planning and executing open competitions.

The mentorship program will help make challenges and prizes a reality across the federal government, no matter the size of the agency or extent of the problem it seeks to solve.

But that’s not all.

OSTP in collaboration with the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS) and GSA’s Open Opportunities program recently launched an online toolkit with case studies and tips for managing all types of crowdsourcing and citizen science projects. In addition, the CCS works across the government to develop best practices for designing, implementing and evaluating crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives.

It’s one of several new initiatives designed to build momentum for open innovation in response to the White House’s call.

And the hard work is starting to pay off… Just take a look at Challenge.gov, where challenges listed on the site are fast approaching the 500 mark, and the success stories spreading across government.

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