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.
Build a Team
A challenge requires the expertise of individuals who can perform a variety of roles, including:
- problem definition
- prize design
- procurement and funds disbursement
- technical support
- legal counsel
- event planning
There could be other roles, depending on the design of your challenge. Identify early who you'll need to consult from key offices (i.e., legal, procurement, communications/public affairs) while developing your challenge. These choices will shape the concepts and alternatives available to you in structuring your challenge. Many agencies have experience running challenges, and there already may be staff with useful knowledge. Also, consider that your team may change over the course of your challenge.
People who have run a challenge at your agency will be a valuable resource, even if they won't play a significant role in the design and development of yours. They can point you to individuals you'll need on your team or groups that should be involved. For example, someone who has run challenges at your agency before probably can introduce you to the attorney(s) most familiar with prize authorities.
If you can't find anyone with challenge experience, check out the list of mentors included on this toolkit, ask for guidance from the Federal Challenges & Prizes Community of Practice or send a note to the Challenge.gov team.
A challenge may appear simpler in execution and design than a traditional government program, but this isn't necessarily the case. A challenge is a program too, albeit one often carried out with a comprehensive communications campaign and in a compressed time frame.
Many of the core competencies needed to execute a challenge overlap with those required for a traditional government program. Below are some of the primary roles needed throughout a challenge. Depending on how the team is structured, these roles may be carried out by people at one agency, across several agencies or at third-party vendor or partner organizations.
- Team lead: The person in this role should be the same during and after a challenge. Continuity of leadership ensures successful stewardship of a challenge through the many stages of development and execution. The team lead will serve as the overall project coordinator, facilitator and point of contact for all members of the team. The person in this role sets the tempo and structure for the challenge. Unless the government is playing a supportive role in another organization's prize competition, the team lead is usually, and in some cases must be, a federal employee. It has been common in recent years for government fellows to play this role as well.
- Logistics & support: The person in this role generally serves as the "catch-all" who keeps the team on track with the timeline and goals. This person will research, plan events, schedule meetings, book conference rooms, and review and draft documents. This person also may serve as the project coordinator in the absence of the team lead.
- Subject matter anchor: This role should be filled by someone in the relevant subject matter program office at your agency. If you conduct a challenge on a topic outside of your agency's programmatic portfolio, the prize may be "owned" by your lead innovation officer. The person in this role typically sets the goals of the challenge and criteria for winning.
- Subject matter experts (SMEs): This role can be filled by SMEs within the originating office or SMEs from other government agencies, academic institutions or the private sector. These experts help define the problem and understand the state of innovation in their field. They also help draft the challenge statement, construct the desired outcomes and define the criteria for winning.
- Communications/engagement: This role is gaining traction across government agencies. For many agencies, a desired outcome of running a challenge is creating social awareness about an issue. This is easier to achieve if you make communications and engagement a primary team role. A strong communications campaign serves several purposes. It can raise social awareness, engage and educate the public, and increase the number and diversity of applications. Challenge participants often say media attention is more valuable than cash prizes as it can lead to additional investment and collaboration opportunities. Those handling communications and engagement for your challenge also coordinate with your agency's legislative affairs office.
- Legal: Here it is again: Engage your office of general counsel early in the design process. General counsel can provide essential advice on eligibility, intellectual property, prize authority and adherence to the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act.
- Contracts/grants/budget: The people in these roles ensure adherence to agency policy for procurement and assistance and serve as the gateway to awarding prizes. As you start designing your challenge you need to determine who will help you disburse cash prizes. Their advice will influence challenge design features such as eligibility, review process, selection criteria, public notifications and payment of funds. Some agencies have well-established standard operating procedures for disbursing prizes. Still, many don't. The latter often hire outside prize administrators, which can be time consuming.
- The customer or end user: Involve the intended end user or "customer" of the innovation early in your design process. For example, the Desal Prize team traveled to the Middle East and met with farmers to determine the barriers to technology uptake and their needs and desires for brackish water desalination systems. The team structured the challenge performance criteria with this information in mind.
- Others: A prolific, diverse challenges and prizes community has emerged across the U.S. government. Consult with your fellow practitioners at all stages of your challenge to ensure your project is as effective as it can be.
Private foundations and corporations increasingly seek opportunities to work with government agencies and combine monetary and technical resources to make an impact across various sectors. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development partnered with National Geographic to launch the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, with National Geographic providing monetary and technical support to help design the challenge and evaluate proposals. Your agency's general counsel can tell you about the agreements that need to be in place when setting up a public-private partnership.
Collaborators, partners and stakeholders are important to the success of your challenge. Other agencies, academic institutions, nonprofits and groups with similar concerns can bring valuable perspectives to your project. They can contribute funding or support other aspects of the challenge. For example, another federal agency may lead the communications or judging efforts or provide subject matter expertise that not available to you at your agency. The mechanisms you use to engage with third parties will be determined by the legal authority used to run the challenge, as well as requirements and priorities within your agency.
The government has a special ability to convene players in markets and systems conducive to innovation. This enables innovators to access people and resources they normally couldn't. Partners could include:
- corporations that can serve as manufactures, customers, distributors or acquirers of an innovator's technology
- organizations with ground-level market knowledge, which could include partners from relevant markets, federal and local government agencies, and local businesses
- organizations with expertise in logistics and legal/regulatory challenges of local and international operations
- technical experts from academia, design firms or other organizations with the ability to offer detailed feedback on product design
- investors, lenders and others who can provide focused funding in a particular sector
- partners who can finance end users
Thanks to the federal government's increased use of challenges, an industry of vendors has developed to support agencies in running competitions. These vendors offer expertise throughout the phases of a challenge including providing a web platform, prize design and administration, communications and funds disbursement. When working with a vendor you need to ensure an appropriate level of agency representation for the project. This would include a challenge lead, legal representative, communications team, subject matter experts, and contracting or grants support (depending on the disbursement structure).
If you think you'll need consultation with problem definition or prize design, then you'll want to select a vendor to join your team early in the process. Some teams will wait until Phase 2 (Develop) to pick a vendor if that vendor is more likely to help with execution and administration than strategy and design.