Startup America Policy Challenge: Tapping Citizen Solvers to Drive Innovation

From his first day in office, President Obama committed his Administration to a new era of open government, which includes embracing innovative ways for the public to participate and collaborate with their government.

In that spirit, last year we announced the Startup America Policy Challenge, calling on entrepreneurs and the broader public to share their ideas on how to accelerate entrepreneurial innovation in healthcare, energy, and education.  Aneesh Chopra, then U.S. Chief Technology Officer, kicked off the dialogue on the Q&A platform Quora, with follow-up from the Secretaries of Energy, Education, and Health and Human Services.

In response, a network of universities led by Arizona State University launched a nationwide competition for students and other solvers across the country to develop the best ideas into detailed “policy business plans.”

Last week, the Policy Challenge finalists gathered here in DC to present their ideas to a panel of expert judges as well as Administration officials.  Each team proposed insightful plans for new government policies to drive private-sector innovation – all at relatively low cost to taxpayers. 

Students from the University of Wisconsin devised an innovative way to incentivize solar panel leases for businesses and homeowners.  Students from Columbia University identified how to unleash the power of networks to develop next-generation student achievement tests.  And a team of healthcare practitioners from Phoenix, Arizona, proposed tapping the skills of recently discharged military veterans as “heathcare transition coaches” for Medicare patients.  These and other plans are being shared directly with relevant Federal agencies.

This Policy Challenge represents just one way to encourage public participation in important national priorities.  We the People is a tool that gives citizens an easy way to directly petition the Administration on the issues that matter to them. allows Federal agencies to post rewards for whoever provides the best solution to a tough problem.  And the new Presidential Innovation Fellows initiative, announced just last week, will bring top innovators from outside government for focused “tours of duty” alongside Federal innovators to work on cutting-edge projects like easier access to electronic health records and reinventing how we deliver foreign assistance.

We are only beginning to realize the full potential of public participation platforms to transform government and improve Americans’ lives.  Check out our presentation on expanding opportunities for informed participation, delivered at last week’s Policy Challenge workshop, and let us know your thoughts on optimal roles for policymakers, universities, and other stakeholders.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Doug Rand is Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director

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