Agency innovation contests hampered by questions about legality, fairness

The Obama administration has been promoting agencies using prizes and contests to spur innovation, but those competitions are raising concerns about fairness and intellectual property rights, according to a new report.

Federal agency officials have difficulties with maintaining fairness and arranging proper legal authority as they follow White House guidance to increase their use of prizes and contests to spur innovation, according to a new report released by the Case Foundation.

The report, titled “Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking,” was published Aug. 24. It is based on discussions during a recent strategy session conference sponsored by Case and by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Domestic Policy Council.

The report states that innovation contests are a proven way to increase transparency and motivate innovation. It offers descriptions of lessons learned and challenges ahead for federal agencies in implementing the White House’s open government guidance that encourages using prizes, challenges and contests to foster innovation. The Office of Management and Budget released a memo in March that detailed guidance for innovation competitions, and many agencies have already sponsored such contests among employees, industry and the public.

Although many agency executives are enthusiastic about holding the innovation competitions, there are many questions about how to proceed, the foundation’s report concluded.

For example, agency officials are finding it difficult to ensure fairness in a competition, especially in circumstances when some of the contestants or people who vote on the proposed solutions appear to be trying to outwit the system.


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The report describes a competition at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in which the agency hid red weather balloons in various places throughout the United States and asked teams to try to find them under simulated wartime conditions. Some of the teams tried to hack DARPA’s computers, while others spread disinformation to confuse other teams. Those types of responses were anticipated and designed into the competition. However, it was very difficult to maintain fairness, according to a DARPA oficial.

"Ensuring absolute fairness is hard," Peter Lee, director of the Transformational Convergence Technology Office at DARPA, said in the report. "It took much more time than we expected."

In another example, some agencies report that in the case of contests in which members of the public vote on solutions, groups of participants may try to game the system. Also, such voting systems often do not lead to the best solution, the report said.

“It is not clear that making final evaluations is the right use of Web 2.0 tools when it comes to such contests,” the report said.

Another problem for agency officials is the lack of a cross-agency authority for authorizing prizes and competitions, which makes it difficult for those agencies that do not have specific authority themselves, the report said.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra is quoted in the report saying he hopes that situation would improve and cross-agency authority would be created. "Looking forward, we are looking at how to have that authority across agencies,” Kundra said.

In addition, agency officials are raising intellectual property questions in cases in which a technical solution wins an innovation contest. There are questions about who will own the intellectual property, and how should the ownership be handled, the report said.

Agency innovation contest sponsors also are worried about ensuring they have enough administrative capacity to appropriately oversee a competition, the foundation said.

 

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