The challenges to leading challenges

Learn more about how the government is increasingly turning to challenges

Agencies are regularly being challenged to conduct more challenges.

These challenges aren’t new; in the 1920s, Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing was the result of seeking a prize. But these prizes have evolved in the Internet age. Just this week, the government launched a Web site, that brings together federal challenges in one place.

So how do you effectively carry out a competition? Brad Rourke is the President of the Mannakee Circle Group. Earlier this year, he worked with the Case Foundation and the White House on an event looking at challenges. The result was a report titled Promoting Innovation, Prizes, Challenges and Open Grant Making Report.

And he says that challenges have been around for years, you remember Charles Lindberg, the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

“Every knows he flew from New York to paris in 1927, but what people didn’t know was he was after a prize,” Rourke said. “No one really thought that he’d be able to do this.”

That, Rourke says, is the value of problem solving through contests.

“With a challenge, you unleash people’s creativity, you unleash their energy, and you allow numerous people to all put their best thinking into solving this problem,” Rourke said. “The hard part is not running the challenge but making sure you have a challenge-worthy issue, and making sure that you provide a good set of guidelines to get solutions.”

Rourke outlines some Dos:

  • Agencies must make sure both authority and budget are in place before starting on planning.

    Rourke says that OMB has recently become involved in the federal challenge process, and has set some guidances for how to conduct challenges. Among them: talk to your special counsel early and often.

  • Agencies should find a really simple goal that is hard to do, but is doable, and everyone has got to be able to agree when it’s been met. For example, the government has a new challenge which is part of the newly launched build a car that gets 100 mpg. When a car meets that criteria, you know it’s a winner.
  • Agencies must make sure to conduct the challenge in the most open and transparent way so that the participants do the same. You can’t assume the participants are being fair.

    “Not only an issue of making sure folks aren’t gaining the system, but also being very transparent in the decisions you make,” Rourke said, “so that you can make sure that you’re getting good results, but also that people are trusting the outcome.”

Rourke says that especially now, challenges are a great alternative. With the Internet, new technologies and social media, agencies can begin to harness even more creativity, participants can build on top of each other, and can find really creative solutions to some vexing problems.

“If you structure it right, you can get some amazing and interesting results,” Rourke.

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