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GSA Shows Some Creativity with Challenge.gov

Challenge.gov

There’s been an exciting development in online collaboration this month with GSA’s launch of Challenge.gov – a platform for Federal agencies to conduct challenges and contests.

It’s a great example of approaching an aspect of government work – finding solutions to problems facing the country and government – not just a little faster or a little more efficiently, but with a completely different approach. In the past, the government might have hired and managed people to try to find solutions the these problems. Now, agencies can tap into the collective wisdom of completely new and creative audiences of problems solvers using this online collaboration platform.

Online contests are not completely new, to be sure. Some early examples of online competitions include those lead by Ashoka, Innocentive, and EPA. Since 2004 (or earlier!), Ashoka’s Changemakers.net has run competitions to enlist social entrepreneurs to find new solutions to global problems. Similarly, since 2001, Innocetive.com has used "open innovation" to identify solutions in chemistry, life sciences, engineering, and other fields.

Other government contests and competitions have been run by agencies like DARPA and NASA, but were not really dependent or based upon on an online platform.

Challenge.gov is a ready-to-go online platform for Federal agencies. Any Federal agency can post a challenge needing a solution to Challenge.gov. The public may sign up to view challenges, submit their solutions, and vote on other solutions. It should remove a lot of barriers and friction to agencies exploring the use of such competitions, thereby helping them answer President Obama’s call to use challenges and prizes to spur innovation (PDF).

As of September 18, the count of open challenges was:

  • 10: NASA
  • 4: EPA, DOD, and HHS
  • 2: Energy, GSA, and USDA
  • 1:  Air Force, Army, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Education, Interior, Labor, Navy, NIH, SAMSHA, SSA, State, Transportation, Treasury, and USAID

I see several other interesting aspects of this for the government and for the rest of U.S. citizens:

  1. First, it took some work to get Challenge.gov officially approved and launched. This makes it all the more valuable that GSA has done the groundwork for agencies. In September 2009, President Obama released the “Strategy for American Innovation,” encouraging agencies to use prizes and challenges. Then in March 2010, OMB issued guidance on the “Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government” (PDF). Following this call to action, GSA had to work out the Terms and Conditions to make it appropriate for government agencies - no small feat.
     
  2. GSA picked the very cool ChallengePost platform after evaluating eight platforms that were identified in response to this Request for Information. ChallengePost was/is used to run USDA’s Apps for Healthy Kids challenge.
     
  3. Potential benefits: The lessons from Innocentive are that open online challenges can lead to innovative, unexpected, and cost-effective solutions to problems. Because these contests are online and open, a wide audience of people can view and participate. Some of the most prolific problem solvers on Innocentive are people who bring expertise from one sector into a completely new sector – and with success. Read about Ed Melcarek in Wired and about a successful Innocentive challenge which led to identification of a way to pump cold and hardening Exxon Valdez oil off the bottom of Prince Williams Sound using some technologies derived from concrete pumping in construction.

    Hats off to GSA’s Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement for getting this up and running.

    One question I have for GSA is about how they will support government agencies in using Challenge.gov? In the online technology world, the technology is often the “easy” part; the harder part is applying the tools effectively and getting the audiences to engage and use them. I find it interesting to see that Innocentive offers consulting for organizations in how to plan and carry out an open innovative effort.