Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Prizes and Challenges

Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

-President Barack Obama, on his first day as President

Background

Prizes and challenges are competitions among individuals, communities, government entities, businesses, institutions, or non-profit organizations to achieve defined goals in a defined timeframe. They often use cash prizes and other incentives to reach beyond the “usual suspects” and increase the number of problem-solvers addressing a critical issue.

The White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation (SICP), in collaboration with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), works closely with Federal agencies to promote the use of prizes and challenges to engage civic innovators, entrepreneurs, and citizen scientists and solve problems in areas of national priority, including energy, public safety, health, cybersecurity, and infrastructure.

Over the past five years, prize competitions have become a proven way to increase innovation for the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. Today, incentivized, open competition has become a standard tool in every Federal agency’s toolbox for delivering more cost-effective and efficient services and advancing agencies’ core missions. Federal agencies have discovered that prizes and challenges allow them to:

  • Pay only for success and establish an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed.
  • Expand the Federal government’s reach to citizen solvers and entrepreneurs of diverse backgrounds, skillsets, and experience.
  • Bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear.
  • Increase cost-effectiveness to maximize the return on taxpayer dollars.
  • Inspire risk-taking by offering a level playing field through credible rules and robust judging mechanisms.

Launched in 2010, Challenge.gov is a critical component of the Federal government’s use of prize competitions to spur innovation. The site, operated by the General Services Administration, is both an official listing of all Federal challenges and an interactive platform used by government agencies and citizen solvers. As of October 2015, more than 450 challenges have been posted on the site, offering awards exceeding $150 million. See some of the success stories of the past five years, including:         

  • The Food and Drug Administration recently concluded a competition that sought faster, more precise methods to detect pathogens, such as Salmonella, in food. The first place winner devised faster detection techniques for Salmonella to more quickly find the disease-causing organisms in fresh produce and other food..
  • The National Institute of Justice offered a $75,000 prize to developers who could create an app that significantly improved public safety services. The winner created a school emergency screencast application that uses existing camera systems, ultra-high-speed bandwidth, and gunshot detection hardware to report fire immediately to first responders, and allows emergency personnel to identify an active shooter.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bureau of Reclamation challenged innovators around the world to create cost-effective, energy efficient, sustainable desalination technologies to provide water for people and crops. The winning team designed a solar-powered system that removes salt from water with electricity and uses ultraviolet rays to disinfect the water, showing the potential this approach to be a scalable, sustainable, and affordable desalination technology for rural areas of developing countries.

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