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Get to Know Challenges

Get to Know Challenges

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In this phase you'll begin to think through the problem you're trying to solve, estimate the necessary resources and consider partnerships within and outside government. This will help identify goals and desired outcomes and determine if a challenge is the appropriate tool for achieving results.

Other Phases

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Get to Know Challenges

The use of challenges has steadily increased across government in recent years under a number of authorities outlined in an Office of Management and Budget memorandum from 2011 (OMB M-10-11). One such authority is the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which was signed into law Jan. 4, 2011.

Section 105 of the COMPETES Act added Section 24 (Prize Competitions) to the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980 (15 USCS § 3719), granting all government agencies broad authority to conduct prize competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems and advance core missions.

The federal government has run many types of challenges to achieve a variety of outcomes. More than 100 agencies have run nearly 1,000 challenges since 2010, offering more than $220 million in cash prizes and other incentives. These challenges have brought more than 5 million site visitors to Challenge.gov and attracted hundreds of thousands of solvers from every part of the United States and around the world.

Federal agencies have used challenges to source new ideas, stimulate markets, develop technology, generate awareness, and educate and spur collective action, according to a 2014 analysis of government challenges.

The most comprehensive source of data about government challenges since 2010 are the reports to Congress compiled by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for fiscal years 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.

This report is now delivered to Congress every other year, per the 2017 American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.

Key Takeaways

1. Get to know the unique benefits of challenges.

Prizes and challenges have an established track record of spurring innovation in the private and philanthropic sectors. The 1714 Longitude Prize stimulated the development of the world's first practical method to determine a ship's longitude. In the 1920s, the Orteig Prize inspired Charles Lindbergh to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. More recently, the 2011 Oil Cleanup X Challenge saw a company from Illinois demonstrate a drastic improvement in the recovery rate for cleaning up oil from the ocean's surface.

Challenges and prizes provide several unique benefits:

  • Allow government to pay only for success and establish an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed. Contracts and grants are awarded based on proposals for future work, forcing agencies to value past performance at the expense of disruptive innovation. With a focus on proven results, challenges empower untapped talent to deliver unexpected solutions to tough problems.
  • Reach beyond the "usual suspects" to increase the number of minds tackling a problem. Challenges are one tool to tap the top talent and best ideas wherever they live, discovering breakthroughs from a broad pool of known and unknown sources of innovation in a given industry.
  • Bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear. Empirical research conducted by Harvard Business School finds that breakthrough solutions are most likely to come from outside the scientific discipline or at the intersection of two fields of study.
  • Increase cost-effectiveness to maximize the return on taxpayer dollars. Challenges incentivize significant additional investment, magnifying the impact of cash prizes. Teams also compete for the associated validation, prestige and satisfaction that come from solving critical problems.
  • Inspire risk-taking by offering a level playing field through credible rules and robust judging mechanisms. Challenges give entrepreneurs and innovators license to pursue an endorsed stretch goal that otherwise would have been considered too audacious. Clear target metrics and validation protocols defined for the judging of a prize can themselves become defining tools for the subject industry or field.

2. Look at a broad range of challenges that have been conducted by the government.

Challenges allow you to address a wide variety of problems covering a broad range of topics, outcomes, prizes and participants. Take a look at the various challenges that have been run on Challenge.gov, look at the case studies on this toolkit, search the web for challenges in your topic area and engage with the federal prize and challenge community to learn more.

3. Find your agency challenge point of contact.

You'll want to know if your agency has run any challenges before and if your agency has a challenge point of contact. After familiarizing yourself with the challenge concept, reach out to your agency's challenge point of contact for specific guidance. You don't need to reinvent the wheel!

In addition to resources from your own agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), through the Challenge.gov program, has trained thousands in the federal government through workshops, online resources and an active community of practice. NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) also provides a full suite of challenge implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods.

4. Don't underestimate the effort.

Challenges have gained interest as a way to address problems across the federal government, but the effort involved is often underestimated. Starting a challenge with reasonable expectations will improve your likelihood of success. Consult the resources made available through this toolkit to stay on track.

5. Don't force a challenge.

Not all problems lend themselves to challenges. Before you commit to a challenge, think critically about the nature of your problem and consider other options such as grants, contracts and inter-agency agreements. OSTP put together some innovative contracting case studies that provide greater insight. It may be more effective to combine different methods, such as challenges and contracts, to achieve your objectives.

Step 1.4 discusses this topic in more detail.

Still have questions?

Contact the Team