Unleashing a Community of Innovators

Government-sponsored challenge competitions save money and harness the public's ingenuity to solve difficult problems.
by | February 19, 2014
 

How can government procure innovation? Even better, how can government get innovation given to it? Challenge platforms such as the General Services Administration's (GSA) Challenge.gov demonstrate a new way for governments at all levels to procure innovative products, services and ideas and build pipelines to deliver these innovations constantly.

With competitions such as ones for developing a methodology to predict the flu season to designing sensors for sewer overflows, the Challenge.gov platform produces an opportunity for government savings, an engaged civic community producing a stream of innovation, and substantial exposure and rewards for small businesses and individuals. Last month the Innovations in American Government program at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center gave its annual prize to GSA for showing that government can innovate better, faster and much cheaper by employing new, collaborative digital processes.

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Challenge.gov creatively sidesteps many of the roadblocks to public-sector innovation. It utilizes neither a narrow prescriptive procurement nor an expensive government contractor. It doesn't rely on an incumbent vendor or assume that government has an answer that simply requires a vendor to execute it. Instead of paying first and hoping a solution is delivered, GSA's approach minimizes risk and encourages creativity by inducing dozens and sometimes hundreds of potential solutions and leaving the government agency free to pick the best before delivering a reward. It's an approach that opens up space for individuals and smaller businesses to shine in a sector often crowded out by big companies.

As an example of a successful Challenge.gov outcome, consider Nomorobo, developed last year in response to a Federal Trade Commission challenge, that eliminates robocalls and blocks telemarketers for anyone using Internet-based phone service, for free. The inventor, Aaron Foss, won $25,000 and has used his success to found a company to further develop Nomorobo and perhaps other related products. And the public has gained a valuable tool.

Challenge platforms such as New York City's NYC BigApps bring the approach to the local level. Prizes are awarded to apps that address issues such as "healthy living" or "jobs and economic mobility," while the exact nature of the solution -- as well as the final definition of the specific problem to be solved -- is left to the developer. Using BigApps, the city defines its general needs and pulls in foundations for funding and promotion, but then gives developers the space to be creative.

That's where challenge platforms excel, in letting governments take a relatively hands-off approach to developing innovation: opening up the opportunity to anyone with Internet access, avoiding lengthy contracting processes and working with individuals and small businesses while transferring risk to those entrepreneurs best suited to take a challenge on. The most successful challenge campaigns engage with participants to support their efforts, opening new data sets and being receptive to suggestions and new ideas.

While prizes can range from zero to more than a million dollars -- a bargain in comparison to avoided research and development costs -- in many cases the most valuable reward for the public sector is access to an entrepreneurial community that bridges government and the civic-minded public. The Environmental Protection Agency's Apps for the Environment Challenge, for example, offered participants no reward money but rather the opportunity to present their products at a conference alongside peers while interacting with government officials, and it drew many entries.

Challenges not only produce new solutions, but help to build new communities that can create a stream of innovation. The Department of Labor collaborates with the federal Data.gov platform to host challenges that, through ongoing engagement, have produced a community of developers who continue to produce useful products and apps that leverage the department's data -- even without a new challenge necessarily having been launched.

Government needs more than innovative solutions. It needs innovative ways to catalyze those solutions -- less structure, faster processes, more collaboration and more humility in how it solicits ideas. Challenge platforms present a way for even relatively small budget allocations to harness America's ingenuity toward solving serious problems.

Ben Weinryb Grohsgal contributed to the research and writing for this column. He is a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and a student in the master's in public policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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