Public-Private Session to Focus on Prizes, Challenges, and Open Grantmaking

Policymakers in more than 25 Federal agencies and Departments are poised to get a mix of education and inspiration at an all-day session to be held later this week that will focus on the use of prizes and other incentives to generate solutions to pressing problems.

The event, co-sponsored by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Domestic Policy Council, and the Case Foundation, is an outgrowth of President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation, released in September. That plan called upon agencies to increase their ability to promote and harness innovation, in part by using policy tools such as prizes and challenges. The concept is simple: Offer a reward—including some measure of fame and boasting rights—to the first person or team to achieve a difficult goal. Then step back as players who might otherwise not have shown interest rise to the challenge and race to the finish line, in many cases getting there faster and at less expense than would otherwise have occurred.

This week’s event also has roots in the Open Government Directive issued by the White House in December, which called upon agencies to use new approaches such as open grantmaking to tap the expertise and ingenuity of the American people and bring the best ideas to bear on our Nation’s most pressing problems. Like prizes and challenges, open grantmaking techniques aim to identify novel ideas from unexpected places to get more and better results for the budgetary buck.

These strategies have already been used to great effect by the private and philanthropic sectors and a handful of forward-leaning government offices but are still largely unexplored by Federal agencies and Departments. Now that is about to change.

On Friday, some of the world’s top experts in prizes, challenges, and open grantmaking will descend on Washington to inspire and guide more than 100 creative policymakers from across the Executive Branch. These visiting experts, from a number of high-profile companies and organizations, will candidly discuss their successes as well as their difficulties and lessons learned. Federal participants will also have the opportunity to share with these mentors some of the ways they are considering using these techniques in their home agencies, and get feedback on their plans.

The benefits of these approaches are potentially large. As outlined in an Office of Management and Budget guidance (pdf) released last month, the Administration believes that prizes and challenges can help the government:

  • Establish an important goal without having to choose the approach or the team that is most likely to succeed;
  • Pay only for results;
  • Increase the number and diversity of the individuals, organizations, and teams addressing a particular problem or challenge;
  • Improve the skills of the participants in the competition;
  • Stimulate private sector investment that is many times greater than the cash value of the prize;
  • Further a Federal agency’s mission by attracting more interest and attention to a defined program, activity, or issue of concern; and
  • Capture the public imagination and change the public’s perception of what is possible.

Preliminary details about Friday’s event are posted here, with additional details to come out later this week.

Robynn Sturm is United States Assistant Deputy Chief Technology Officer

Rick Weiss is Director of Strategic Communcations and a Senior Policy Analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

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