Open Government Initiative Blog

  • 21st-Century Public Servants: Using Prizes and Challenges to Spur Innovation

    Thousands of Federal employees across the government are using a variety of modern tools and techniques to deliver services more effectively and efficiently, and to solve problems that relate to the missions of their Agencies. These 21st-century public servants are accomplishing meaningful results by applying new tools and techniques to their programs and projects, such as prizes and challenges, citizen science and crowdsourcing, open data, and human-centered design.

    Prizes and challenges have been a particularly popular tool at Federal agencies. With 397 prizes and challenges posted on since September 2010, there are hundreds of examples of the many different ways these tools can be designed for a variety of goals. For example:

    • NASA’s Mars Balance Mass Challenge: When NASA’s Curiosity rover pummeled through the Martian atmosphere and came to rest on the surface of Mars in 2012, about 300 kilograms of solid tungsten mass had to be jettisoned to ensure the spacecraft was in a safe orientation for landing. In an effort to seek creative concepts for small science and technology payloads that could potentially replace a portion of such jettisoned mass on future missions, NASA released the Mars Balance Mass Challenge. In only two months, over 200 concepts were submitted by over 2,100 individuals from 43 different countries for NASA to review. Proposed concepts ranged from small drones and 3D printers to radiation detectors and pre-positioning supplies for future human missions to the planet’s surface. NASA awarded the $20,000 prize to Ted Ground of Rising Star, Texas for his idea to use the jettisoned payload to investigate the Mars atmosphere in a way similar to how NASA uses sounding rockets to study Earth’s atmosphere. This was the first time Ted worked with NASA, and NASA was impressed by the novelty and elegance of his proposal: a proposal that NASA likely would not have received through a traditional contract or grant because individuals, as opposed to organizations, are generally not eligible to participate in those types of competitions.
    • National Institutes of Health (NIH) Breast Cancer Startup Challenge (BCSC): The primary goals of the BCSC were to accelerate the process of bringing emerging breast cancer technologies to market, and to stimulate the creation of start-up businesses around nine federally conceived and owned inventions, and one invention from an Avon Foundation for Women portfolio grantee.  While NIH has the capacity to enable collaborative research or to license technology to existing businesses, many technologies are at an early stage and are ideally suited for licensing by startup companies to further develop them into commercial products. This challenge established 11 new startups that have the potential to create new jobs and help promising NIH cancer inventions support the fight against breast cancer. The BCSC turned the traditional business plan competition model on its head to create a new channel to license inventions by crowdsourcing talent to create new startups.

    These two examples of challenges are very different, in terms of their purpose and the process used to design and implement them. The success they have demonstrated shouldn’t be taken for granted. It takes access to resources (both information and people), mentoring, and practical experience to both understand how to identify opportunities for innovation tools, like prizes and challenges, to use them to achieve a desired outcome.

    The Obama Administration has taken important steps to make prizes and challenges standard tools in every agency’s innovation toolbox. To make these tools easier to use by more Federal employees, the Administration committed in the 2013 Second Open Government National Action Plan to “convene an interagency group to develop an Open Innovation Toolkit for Federal agencies that will include best practices, training, policies, and guidance on authorities related to open innovation, including approaches such as incentive prizes, crowdsourcing, and citizen science.” Work on developing one half of this open innovation toolkit, the citizen science and crowdsourcing toolkit, began in fall 2014.

    Last month, the program at the General Services Administration (GSA), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)’s Innovation Lab, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and a core team of Federal leaders in the prize-practitioner community began collaborating with the Federal Community of Practice for Challenges and Prizes to develop the other half of the open innovation toolkit, the prizes and challenges toolkit. In developing this toolkit, OSTP and GSA are thinking not only about the information and process resources that would be helpful to empower 21st-century public servants using these tools, but also how we help connect these people to one another to add another meaningful layer to the learning environment.


    On March 6, 2015, the White House OSTP, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM)’s Innovation Lab, and the GSA program convened an all-day, user-centered design workshop to develop user needs for a Federal prizes and challenges toolkit. Thirty members of the Federal Community of Practice for Prizes and Challenges participated. (Photo credit: Arianne Miller)

    Creating an inventory of skills and knowledge across the 600-person (and growing!) Federal community of practice in prizes and challenges will likely be an important resource in support of a useful toolkit. Prize design and implementation can involve tricky questions, such as:

    • Do I have the authority to conduct a prize or challenge?
    • How should I approach problem definition and prize design?
    • Can agencies own solutions that come out of challenges?
    • How should I engage the public in developing a prize concept or rules?
    • What types of incentives work best to motivate participation in challenges?
    • What legal requirements apply to my prize competition?
    • Can non-Federal employees be included as judges for my prizes?
    • How objective do the judging criteria need to be? 
    • Can I partner to conduct a challenge? What’s the right agreement to use in a partnership?
    • Who can win prize money and who is eligible to compete?

    Often there are not “one-size-fits-all” answers to these questions, which is what makes peer-to-peer consultation so valuable. Making it easier for public servants to find each other and know who to reach out to for consultation will help expand prize design and implementation capacity in the Federal workforce, and will enable organic scaling the use of these tools.

    As more and more Federal employees are equipped with modern tools and techniques such as prizes and challenges, 21st-century public servants will have more options for making meaningful progress towards solving tough problems and delivering services more efficiently and effectively in areas of national priority such as energy, health care, precision medicine, education, and the economy.

    Jenn Gustetic is Assistant Director for Open Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

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  • Improving Accessibility of Government Websites

    As government digital efforts continue to grow, improving accessibility of government websites for individuals with disabilities remains a government-wide priority. On March 31, the Office of Science and Technology Policy joined with the General Services Administration’s 18F team, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, and DC Legal Hackers to host a11yhack, a website accessibility hackathon.

    Federal websites are, by law, designed to be accessible to everyone — including individuals who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, or have mobility issues. The hackathon was aimed at accessibility — or “a11y” — users, developers, policy makers, and technologists. It featured experts from inside and outside of government discussing their work and an opportunity to collaborate on new and existing projects. The event’s goal was to develop shareable solutions to some of the digital accessibility problems facing government and users today.

    For example, one team began working on a 508 Procurement Playbook — a tool intended to assist agency teams as they obtain new systems and technologies to be sure they comply with Section 508, an amendment to the United States Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology.

    Unlike most hackathons, which are focused primarily on tech tools and solutions, this event also included a policy hackathon breakout which gave many of the government and civil society policy experts an opportunity to discuss existing policies and potential areas for improvement. The policy breakout group developed next steps including a proposed summit to dive deeper into these issues. Additional breakouts offered hands-on demos of tools and systems that government and non-government teams had created.

  • EPA Launches New Website to Track Safe Drinking Water Compliance

    Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Safe Drinking Water Act dashboard, a website that tracks whether public water systems are complying with the laws that keep our water safe and clean.

    Clean water is a precious resource. That’s why the EPA sets standards for drinking water quality under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and works with state, tribal, and territorial agencies to oversee implementation of those standards.  At the same time, the Obama Administration continues to advance its open data initiatives – focused on unleashing data across range of topics to empower citizens, communities, entrepreneurs and businesses with the information they need to innovate and make informed decisions.

    The SDWA Dashboard released last week sits at the nexus of these two important policy efforts. The Dashboard openly tracks data about water-facility inspection visits, enforcement actions, and more. Interactive charts show detailed data about facility reports for individual public water systems. Everything on the dashboard can be exported, downloaded and printed.

    The SDWA Dashboard is connected to EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) website, which hosts thousands of visitors each month who are seeking information about the compliance status of facilities in their communities. Users can also investigate pollution sources, examine and create enforcement-related maps, or explore any state's performance with respect to several environmental laws. ECHO is a great example of government transparency, and of EPA’s commitment to engage the public in environmental protection.

    With expanded access to data, anyone can get informed and help play a role in keeping communities safe and healthy.

    Corinna Zarek is the Senior Advisor for Open Government to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer

    Lisa Lund is the Director of the Office of Compliance at the Environmental Protection Agency


  • Celebrating Sunshine Week 2015

    We conclude the 10th Sunshine Week celebrations with an update on the Open Government Initiative started six years ago by President Obama. As part of the Initiative, U.S. agencies are increasingly adopting a “default to open” approach, making more information, data, and records available online than ever before. This week, the Federal government also launched the first government-wide public analytics web dashboard, which is hosted by the General Services Administration (GSA) at

  • U.S.-U.K. Digital Government Partnership

    Today, we are building on a long history of innovation and collaboration on digital technologies with the United Kingdom.  The President and Prime Minister Cameron just announced a commitment to strengthen and expand the ongoing digital partnership between our two countries.  Both countries have made real progress in working to improve how our governments use digital services to better serve citizens and businesses, and to build a stronger digital economy.  We will expand our already existing collaborations in these areas as well as continue to support open data and open government initiatives for our own countries as well as for all countries.

    U.S.-U.K. innovation and collaboration on digital technology dates back to WWII, when both countries were in need of extraordinary amounts of mathematical computation capacity.  Teams from both countries did the seminal work that created modern digital computing.  Breakthrough work included the United Kingdom’s Bletchley Park code breakers, the ENIAC ballistics calculation advances in the United States, and many other groundbreaking programs in both countries. 

    The U.S. and U.K. have also been ongoing innovators of open government and open data; from very early releases and collaborations on weather and mapping data to full data portals now hosted at the United Kingdom’s, and in the United States, which host hundreds of thousands of government data sets released to the public.  And for decades, United States and United Kingdom innovators have been at the forefront of including children in learning computer coding – from early work at Dartmouth to MIT Media Lab’s Seymour Papert’s seminal work on Logo in the 1970s and 80s, to the UK’s BBC Micro from Acorn, a computer designed with an emphasis on education created during those same early years.

    Each of us, personally, has our own digital history with the United Kingdom:

    “This shared digital history is personally powerful to me because of my own connection to it: as a young student in England during the 1950's, my father fell in love with these new digital gizmos, learning to "program" them by changing out transistors and watching what would happen next.  He followed this passion to MIT and a graduate degree in electrical engineering ("computer science" hadn't been invented yet). The magic of those machines never left him - he went to work for IBM and then started a technology company headquartered in New York and London that he still runs today.”Office of Management and Budget Director, Shaun Donovan

    “I learned about the deep U.S.-U.K. digital history through many years of joining the Silicon Valley Comes to the U.K. events held in London each November.  This is an annual program to bring together the two country’s tech /entrepreneurship communities --- it was during a session at 10 Downing where I first learned of the U.K.’s Lady Ada Lovelace, who is often referred to as the world’s first programmer.  This started my personal work to uncover the lost history of technical women and minorities.  At another session, Dr. Sue Black first told me about Bletchley Park– the subject of the new film The Imitation Game’ celebrating the work of WWII code breaking heroes including Alan Turing, Joan Clarke, and others.  Our chance meeting kicked off collaboration to help secure that museum’s future and further teamwork with and others on coding skills for youth and adults in both countries.”U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith

    The next stage of the U.S.-U.K. partnership will focus on three core efforts:

    • First, transforming how government delivers digital services to better meet the needs of citizens.
    • Second, continuing to lead on global open government efforts through the Open Government Partnership, which enhances government transparency and public access to government data.
    • And finally, increasing our nation’s technological capabilities by training the next generation of digital experts and expanding the reach of high quality Internet access.

    Both countries have already stepped up their efforts in this area, learning from each other’s best practices. In 2011, the United Kingdom created the Government Digital Service (GDS), a centralized group of digital experts who have vastly improved citizen experiences when using government digital services.  This team has worked to make public services digital by default, simpler, less costly, and faster to use. 

    In the United States, we recently launched the U.S. Digital Service, a small group of highly skilled tech experts who are working with agencies to improve their citizen-facing digital services and hire their own embedded team of highly skilled digital service leaders.  In addition, GSA, the home of, and many other Federal websites, has built its own digital service team named 18F which is working with more than a dozen agencies to help them deliver on their missions digitally in a design-centric, agile, open, and data-driven way.

    Together, our two countries can continue to be leaders in all of these arenas.  We look forward to further collaboration, which now also includes sharing code through the best-practice of open source.  Next up, Mikey Dickerson, and members of his U.S. Digital Service team, alongside other innovators across the U.S. government, will head to the United Kingdom in coming months to continue the teamwork with the U.K. GDS.  Meanwhile, it has been a pleasure to host the United Kingdom leadership and some of the digital team here in the United States this week.

    Shaun Donovan is the Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

    Megan Smith is the U.S. Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.




    Advancing our Nations’ Digital Services and Building Strong Digital Economies


    Today, President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron committed to continuing the decades-long collaboration between our two nations on advancing digital technologies.  This collaboration has already allowed our countries to make significant strides in upgrading government’s technology infrastructure and capacity to deliver services in order to build stronger digital economies.

    As digital technologies reshape the global economy, countries will increasingly depend on the free flow of information and data, a high-quality digital infrastructure, and public servants with the skills to drive innovation and deliver critical services and benefits to citizens.  The United Kingdom and the United States have made a commitment over the last few years to increase the effectiveness of government digital service delivery, open up government data for public use, and increase public access to technology.  Today’s announcement builds on that partnership by:

    • Transforming Government Digital Service Delivery:  Our governments interact every day with citizens and businesses, delivering services aimed at improving lives and strengthening our economies.  Both governments have developed digital service teams who seek to transform the way the government interacts with citizens and businesses.  Through the partnership we are forging, these teams will continue to work together to share best practices and tackle shared challenges.
    • Advancing the Global Effort on Open Government: The United States and United Kingdom jointly founded the global Open Government Partnership, a group of 65 nations who are working to champion the values of open government and spread its benefits around the world.  We will jointly commit to build on the landmark agreement of G8 leaders to an Open Data Charter, promulgated under the UK G8 Presidency in 2013, and further promote these principles in other international forums.
    • Increasing our Nations’ Tech Capability and Promoting the 21st Century Citizen: The United States and United Kingdom are committed to expanding access to high quality internet for all of their citizens. We are also investing in training children and adults to code, a key skill which will allow them to understand the basics of programing which can help address real world problems.

    The rich partnership between our nations on digital technologies dates back to World War II, when both countries were in need of extraordinary amounts of computation capacity.  Together, teams from both countries did the ground-breaking work that created modern digital computing.  In the coming months, we will agree to a Memorandum of Understanding to solidify this exciting opportunity and strengthen and enhance our longstanding partnership to transform the way governments deliver for our citizens.


    Digital Service Delivery

    • The United Kingdom created the Government Digital Service (GDS), a centralized group of digital experts who have vastly improved citizen experiences when using government digital services. This team has worked to make public services digital by default, simpler, less costly, and faster to use.
    • Last year, the United States launched the U.S. Digital Service, in many ways modeled on the GDS. This group is comprised of some of the country’s best and brightest tech talent and has worked with agencies like the Veterans Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services to improve the digital experience that American citizens and businesses have with their government. In addition 18F, a new delivery unit within General Services Administration (GSA), is working with more than a dozen agencies to help them deliver on their missions in a design-centric, agile, open, and data-driven way.
    • The United Kingdom developed a comprehensive Digital Strategy which consists of 14 actions to fundamentally redesign digital services. These actions include building common technology platforms and making digital services the default for transactions with the government. This strategy, once fully implemented, will save taxpayers in the United Kingdom £2.7 billion per year. 
    • The United States launched a comprehensive data-driven review of agency Information Technology (IT) portfolios to identify and eliminate duplicative systems and rein in wasteful IT spending. This effort, PortfolioStat, has led to over $2.2 billion in savings over the past three years. In addition to the adoption of new technologies and approaches such as cloud computing and agile development, PortfolioStat has helped agencies save taxpayer dollars and deliver greater value in IT.

    Open Government/Open Data

    • The United States has shown its commitment to open government by implementing an Open Data Policy, ensuring that data released by the government is accessible and useful to all. The Administration has released 138,470 data sets to date, and more are released every day. The United States is continuing to support this effort and identify data sets that will benefit the health care, energy, education, employment, public safety, tourism and agriculture sectors.
    • The United Kingdom has created GOV.UK, a single location on the Internet for citizens to access all government information and services. This single site has replaced over 1,500 websites.
    • Together, the United States and United Kingdom launched the Open Government Partnership in 2011. This global effort has grown to include 65 countries committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.  The United States and United Kingdom are world leaders on opening government data and will continue to expand this work.

    Next Generation: Coding at School, Connectivity and Tech Entrepreneurship

    • Last month, millions of U.S. and British students participated in Computer Science Education Week events that included a coding hour hosted by each leader where President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron tried coding to set examples and to encourage youth to join “Hour of Code” efforts.  To date, more than 40 million people from both countries have participated in this program. 
    • These Computer Science Education Week events are held each year during the second week of December specifically timed to coincide with the birthdays of our two elite computer science pioneers: U.S Rear Admiral Grace Hopper on December 9 and the United Kingdom’s Lady Ada Lovelace on December 10.



  • Designing a Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing Toolkit for the Federal Government

    In the 2013 Second Open Government National Action Plan, President Obama called on Federal agencies to harness the ingenuity of the public by accelerating and scaling the use of open innovation methods, such as citizen science and crowdsourcing, to help address a wide range of scientific and societal problems.

    Citizen science is a form of open collaboration in which members of the public participate in the scientific process, including identifying research questions, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, and solving problems. Crowdsourcing is a process in which individuals or organizations submit an open call for voluntary contributions from a large group of unknown individuals (“the crowd”) or, in some cases, a bounded group of trusted individuals or experts.

    Citizen science and crowdsourcing are powerful tools that can help Federal agencies:

    • Advance and accelerate scientific research through group discovery and co-creation of knowledge. For instance, engaging the public in data collection can provide information at resolutions that would be difficult for Federal agencies to obtain due to time, geographic, or resource constraints.
    • Increase science literacy and provide students with skills needed to excel in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Volunteers in citizen science or crowdsourcing projects gain hands-on experience doing real science, and take that learning outside of the classroom setting.
    • Improve delivery of government services with significantly lower resource investments.
    • Connect citizens to the missions of Federal agencies by promoting a spirit of open government and volunteerism.

    To enable effective and appropriate use of these new approaches, the Open Government National Action Plan specifically commits the Federal government to “convene an interagency group to develop an Open Innovation Toolkit for Federal agencies that will include best practices, training, policies, and guidance on authorities related to open innovation, including approaches such as incentive prizes, crowdsourcing, and citizen science.”

    On November 21, 2014, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) kicked off development of the Toolkit with a human-centered design workshop. Human-centered design is a multi-stage process that requires product designers to engage with different stakeholders in creating, iteratively testing, and refining their product designs. The workshop was planned and executed in partnership with the Office of Personnel Management’s human-centered design practice known as “The Lab” and the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (FCPCCS), a growing network of more than 100 employees from more than 20 Federal agencies.