In September 2010 the Obama Administration launched Challenge.gov, a one-stop shop where entrepreneurs and the public can locate and tackle tough problems – and win cash prizes doing it. Two years later, 45 federal agencies have awarded more than $13.9 million in prize money in 205 challenges, with some 16,000 citizen “solvers” taking part in the competitions.
These impressive numbers demonstrate the impact made by the administration’s efforts to make incentive prizes a key part of agencies’ problem-solving and innovation arsenal, White House officials said.
“Well-designed incentive prizes enable federal agencies to establish ambitious goals, pay only for success, reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’ to increase the number of minds tackling a problem and bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear,” Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for Grand Challenges in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said recently in a blog marking the second anniversary of Challenge.gov.
Challenge.gov is an outgrowth of the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010, which granted federal agencies the authority to conduct prize competitions to generate innovation, solve problems and advance their core missions.
A March 2012 progress report from the Office of Science and Technology Policy on federal prize authority concluded that “prizes have a good track record of spurring innovation in the private and philanthropic sectors. Early adopters in the public sector have already begun to reap the rewards of well-designed prizes integrated into a broader innovation strategy.”
Perhaps as important as the prizes is the breadth of federal departments and top officials participating in the initiative, including U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios (video above), who in June kicked off the MyMoneyAppUp Challenge to solicit ideas from the public for mobile applications to help Americans with their finances.
In an interview with AOL, Dorgelo emphasized that innovation competitions listed on Challenge.gov are realizing meaningful results that can be practically applied to mission goals. They aren’t simply isolated experiments that spur clever results from crowd-sourcing. Incentive prizes also turn out to be a great deal for taxpayers, she said.
“Certainly we’re seeing a wide variety of practical results getting into agencies,” she said, pointing to the Air Force Research Laboratory’s recent “vehicle stopper” challenge as a prime example.
Last year, AFRL and its research partner, the Wright Brothers Institute, listed a competition on Challenge.gov and posted on InnoCentive Inc.’s open innovation platform for a cost-effective means of stopping a speeding vehicle. The $25,000 prize was won by a retired, 66-year-old engineer from Peru, whose unique vehicle stopping design has the real potential to be used at military security checkpoints if it passes operational tests this year.
“If this were a procurement program, you could look at something like the vehicle stopper prize program at AFRL and know that it’s incredible value for a $25,000 prize to receive such an inspiring system design in the door from a new source,” Dorgelo said.
Because Challenge.gov lists a wide range of competitions of different types, metrics applied to measure success vary from project to project.
“We’re looking at a variety of types of incentive prizes, ranging from large-scale market stimulation prizes down to the point-solution prizes like AFRL’s vehicle stopper and the more participation-focused prizes like some of the video competitions that you see,” she said. “Those would be differently measured in terms of what their initial goals for success were.”
Financial leverage, or cost-effectiveness, is only one of a number of important metrics applied when looking at the impact of prizes, she said. Agencies, for instance, may assess the quantity of entrants in a challenge.
“The Office of Naval Research conducted a competition for energy storage in which they were really doing a landscape look at different approaches to energy storage globally,” Dorgelo said. “In that case, they were really interested in the volume of entrants coming in the door. So we can look at success in a variety of ways and certainly see some really exciting initial results as we move forward with using this tool with new agencies. I think it’s a great new tool in our innovation toolkit.”
Dogelo cautioned, however, that prize competitions are not meant for every problem.
“They need to be carefully selected as one tool in the toolkit,” she said. “In my mind, they work in a couple of situations particularly well. One where an agency has a sense of the goal they want to accomplish, but not a clear sense of how they’re going to get there. Secondly, it works in situations where an agency is looking to get new minds on an unsolved problem, where they’re looking to call in expertise from outside of the area of research from some other field.”
However, she said, if agency officials know exactly what they want to accomplish and who is the most likely candidate to solve the problem, crowd-sourcing is not the way to go. Instead, a performance-based grant approach would probably deliver the solution they want.
Among lessons learned in two years of challenges, Dorgelo noted that it is critical for agencies using incentive prizes to have clearly defined strategy for marketing the competition and attracting solvers.
“One thing we learned is that a great way to do that is through partnerships,” she said. “The authority to conduct prizes in the America Competes legislation actually allows federal agencies to engage in public-private partnerships to help them build more highly leveraged, more impactful prize programs with organizations that can help them spread the word about the competition.”
Challenge.gov has made strides toward the effective use of crowd sourcing for innovation in the public sector but it still has some shortcomings, said Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights.
“I think challenge.gov is a great platform, but it needs to be leveraged much more effectively,” McCarthy said. “That includes making more people aware of the site. Based on quoted statistics it looks like the site gets about 700 or so submissions–incoming ideas and answers to posted challenges–from participants each month. Given the prize money and potential recognition, it should be much higher than that.”
Another issue, according to McCarthy, is that sometimes “really good and exciting projects get lost in the noise amid other challenges posted on the site. In my opinion, there are too many challenges that simply say, ‘create a video’ or ‘share your ideas’ about a certain topic.”
“Slightly better, but still not super exciting,” he said, “are the challenges that ask people to build an app for things like health monitoring or subject-specific data tracking. To me, the real excitement, and the real potential for the site, can be found in the section dedicated to science and technology.”
An example of an exciting technology challenge was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “Shredder Challenge,” McCarthy said. In this competition, posted last October, solvers from around the world attempted to reconstruct more than 10,000 machine-shredded documents in increasingly difficult stages to win DARPA’s $50,000 prize A small team of computer geeks from San Francisco correctly reconstructed the shredded documents and claimed the $50,000 reward.
Overall, Challenge.gov has had a positive impact, “but if more posted challenges on the site can move away from the simple ‘share your thoughts’ mode and into a more far-reaching ‘help us solve this technical challenge mode,’ then Challenge.gov can become a much more powerful resource for the government,” McCarthy said.
What ahead for Challenge.gov and prize competitions as an innovation tool in government?
“What we’ll see next are new agencies trying out the tool,” Dorgelo said. “We’re going to see agencies that have already gotten on board scaling their programs and looking for areas where they can have greater impact in applying lessons learned. And we’re going to see more public-private partnerships where the federal government partners with philanthropies and with the private sector to roll out these open innovation programs, and we’re going to see new solutions getting generated.”
Finally, she said, “One of the things I’m most excited to see are the actual solutions coming in the door to some long standing tough problems in government.”