White House memo: Public contests can drive innovation

The Obama administration plans to provide agencies with a Web platform for conducting public challenges

The Obama administration is looking to leap any technical and regulatory barriers that might discourage agencies from staging public contests as a way to solve problems and spur development of innovative technology.

In new policy guidance issued March 8, the White House directed agencies to select one or more individuals to identify and carry out contests -- often referred to as challenges -- possibly in partnership with outside organizations. The memo also asks agencies to identify and proactively address legal, regulatory, technical, and other barriers to the use of challenges and associated prizes.

The Obama administration plans to develop a Web-based platform for conducting such challenges. The platform, scheduled to be available to agencies within four months, will provide a forum for agencies to post problems and invite potential problem solvers to suggest, collaborate on, and deliver solutions.

Agencies should use challenges “as tools for advancing open government, innovation, and agencies’ missions,” writes Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “grand challenges,” which offered prize money for developing robotic vehicles, is the kind of program the administration would like other agencies to try, according to the memo.

Another example is the Energy Department’s L Prize which was designed to spur the development of high-quality, highly efficient solid-state lighting products to replace today’s light bulbs.

Agencies should carefully select which kind of prize would be appropriate for various challenges, according to the memo.

For example, point-solution prizes aim to reward and spur development of solutions for a particular, well-defined problem. NASA, for example, is using an online “innovation marketplace” with 180,000 participants to spur solutions to problems such as forecasting solar activity, keeping food fresh in space, and developing a compact aerobic device for astronauts.

Another example is a network prizes which builds networks and strengthen communities by organizing winners into new problem-solving communities that can deliver more impact than individual efforts.

Creating challenges with prizes is one of the mandates agencies must follow as part of the Open Government Directive, according to the directive.

The memo also details how agencies can fund prize challenges. Options include agency-funded prizes, or prizes funded by organizations outside of government such as the National Science Foundation.

Another option is to provide recognition awards that do not necessarily include cash prizes, the memo states.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.


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