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A Primer on Challenges & Prizes

Challenges and prize competitions are proven methods to drive innovation in the public sector and beyond. But they aren’t new. The 1927 Orteig Prize led to Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight and advances in aerospace. In the centuries before, prizes were offered in Europe for ways to determine a ship’s longitude at sea.

Today, incentivized and open competition has become a standard tool for federal agencies to solve mission-centric problems—whether technical, scientific, or creative. Agencies have used challenges to tackle a variety of issues, including:

  • Building resiliency in communities damaged by natural disasters
  • Raising literacy levels for low-income students
  • Jumpstarting technology development and startups in the energy sector
  • Creating environmentally friendly and economically feasible products to recycle nutrients in livestock manure on America’s farms

The links on this page contain a variety of resources that will help agencies and their partners better understand and navigate the process of running a challenge.

Why Use Challenges and Prize Competitions?

Well-designed challenges and prize competitions allow agencies to:

  • Pay only for success and establish an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed;
  • Reach beyond the “usual suspects” to increase the number of solvers tackling a problem and to identify novel approaches without great risk;
  • Bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear; and
  • Increase cost-effectiveness to maximize the return on taxpayer dollars.

Policy and Guidance

The Strategy for American Innovation (PDF, 1.3 MB, 76 pages), first issued in 2009 and subsequently updated, urges the use of open innovation and public participation methods like challenges to improve America’s economic growth and international competitiveness.

In 2010, the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo (PDF, 94 KB, 12 pages) providing a formal policy framework to guide agencies in using challenges and prize competitions to advance their core missions.

That same year, the General Services Administration (GSA) launched, the official clearinghouse for all federal problem-solving competitions.

A Platform for All provides a central place online for agencies to post and manage challenges. It is a one-stop shop for the public to discover and engage with federal agencies that are running crowdsourcing competitions. breaks down barriers to innovation by providing an open format for collaboration. The platform allows government representatives to communicate with citizen problem-solvers and features data and visualization tools that make it easy for agencies to track and report the success of their challenges.

Contact the team via email.

Innovation Acquisition and the Law

There are a variety of legal permissions under which federal agencies can run challenges, including the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, which grants all agencies broad authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve critical problems and advance their core missions.

GSA employs a special contracting vehicle, Professional Services Schedule 541 4G, which includes several vendors that provide support to agencies launching, managing and marketing prize competitions.

A Community of Helping Hands

The federal government has a growing and active community of practice for challenges and prizes. This government-only group consists of more than 725 federal challenge practitioners who use a listserv to ask questions and share information. Email the Challenges Listserv to join and receive email alerts about training, events, networking opportunities, and new reports and resources.

In addition, GSA manages a mentorship program for the federal challenge and prize community. This group of 20 experts is available to offer support and advice to agencies on competition planning, strategy and execution.

Watch and Learn

This playlist contains more than 40 videos of specialized training, expert tips and additional resources exploring and the federal competition space.

Achieving Success

Though the benefits to government agencies are numerous, open competitions are ultimately about people. Challenges have long-lasting impacts beyond the public sector. They help stimulate markets and create industries, build communities of citizen scientists and change people’s lives.

Read about how federal challenges improved the lives of these winning problem-solvers.