A program begun on a shoe string a year ago to help federal agencies tap a broader universe of creative ideas to solve some of the government’s toughest challenges has spawned a surprising, if not revolutionary, wave of innovation in government – and at a fraction of the cost most agencies would traditionally spend to achieve similar results.

The program, known as Challenge.gov, helps federal agencies connect with the ingenuity of individuals and organizations throughout the world, by offering a turnkey system that lets agencies administer their innovation contests and challenges, including the ability to offer cash prizes for the best ideas.

The number of defense, education, energy, health, science and public safety contests that have evolved out of Challenge.gov over the past year is impressive: 36 federal agencies have launched 130 challenges, drawing more than 1,500 entries from around the world with a payout of $38 million in prizes.

Perhaps as importantly, the contests have been a public relations bonanza for agencies and a boon for agencies attempting to engage citizens on a variety of issues, from health care to environmental protection to new ways to air-drop humanitarian aid.

Collectively, the underlying website that supports the contests drew nearly a million unique visitors from 194 countries and 10,695 cities, including every state, across the U.S., according to General Service Administration officials responsible for managing the Challenge.gov program.

The contests that emerged from Challenge.gov have generated everything from software applications and games designed to encourage healthier eating choices, to videos developed by and for teenagers to discourage texting while driving, to product inventions and other innovations.

One such invention included a novel solution for stopping vehicles fleeing from check points without causing permanent damage to the vehicle or harming its occupants.

That idea came from a retired engineer in Lima, Peru named Dante Barbis. His solution, singled out from more than 1,000 responses from 30 countries: develop a remote controlled vehicle with an inflatable system that that can be driven under the fleeing vehicle and lift it off the ground.

The $25,000 prize money that accompanied that contest, conducted by the Air Force Research Lab, is representative not only of the modest sums needed to attract creative attention around unusual challenges, but also the significant potential cost savings in developing potential solutions for nowhere near the cost associated with the government’s traditional acquisition system.

In an another contest, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) challenged the lighting industry to develop super high-performance, energy-saving replacements for conventional light bulbs that will save American consumers and businesses money.

In August, DOE named Philips Lighting North America as the first winner in the 60-watt replacement bulb category. Philips developed a highly efficient light emitting diode (LED) product to meet the rigorous requirements of the L Prize competition – ensuring that performance, quality, lifetime, cost, and availability meet expectations for widespread adoption and mass manufacturing.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, announced a number of prize winners recently for videos, software applications and other initiatives that helped impact communities to focus on healthy weight, physical activity and nutrition.

“Most of the smartest people in the world work for someone else.”

One of the compelling reasons agencies are embracing contests is their ability to unleash ideas that might never have been considered.

“Prizes and challenges let you focus on the result without picking a horse to get you there,” said Robynn Sturm-Steffen, an advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology. She spoke at a GSA-hosted conference Wednesday highlighting the solutions that Challenge.gov had fostered over the past year.

Challenges can also attract talent that is beyond the reach of most organizations. “Most of the smartest people in the world work for someone else,” she said.

They also have the advantage in tight budget times, in allowing agencies “to pay only for results. If no competitor meets the criteria, you don’t have to pay a penny,” she said.

Typically agencies trying to solve a problem would survey industry experts, issue requests for proposals, and award contracts that might take years to deliver and cost millions of dollars.

“This is a tool in the tool box” for agencies, said GSA Associate Administrator David McClure, who heads GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. It won’t solve every problem, but it can offer another approach for agencies, he said. “Challenges and contests are good for problem solving where ideas from many people or targeted groups” can be helpful, particularly in shorter time frames.

Ironically, one of the challenges GSA faces is whether it will be able to secure funding to continue the Challenge.gov program, and make it a more permanent tool for agencies, in light of expected budget cutbacks.

The Challenge.gov site was created through a cooperative effort last year at a cost of less than $10,000, according to McClure. Since then, the demands on the site have grown significantly.

“Agencies have found it works. It’s fairly straightforward. And it’s extremely successful,” he said. “We do need to do some work to enhance the website,” he said.

“The ROI (return on investment) the government gets is astronomical,” he said.

Nevertheless, Challenge.gov is one of several e-government programs GSA supports in cooperation with the Office of Management and Budget, including Data.gov, Performance.gov, USASpending.gov, which are now under review. Funding for those and other programs was already reduced significantly earlier this year.

McClure said the funding questions are hard to address heading into the next fiscal year. “We just don’t know what the (spending) ceiling is,” he said.

Following are list of challenges by category and by federal agency or department (and the number of contests in progress):