platform recognized for changing how feds solve problems

The platform Thursday received the prestigious Harvard Innovations in American Government award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It ...

The White House has made the platform a centerpiece to how it wants agencies to think differently to solve problems.

Agencies have responded by using the portal to run more than 300 competitions, which have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in prizes.

For its success in initiating widespread change across the government, the platform Thursday received the prestigious Harvard Innovations in American Government award from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. stood out among more than 600 entrants and beat out four other finalists from state, local and federal entities.

“I think this particular award is both fascinating and well deserved because it represents an additional factor. Today we think about innovation, and we have this argument that the government can’t innovate and all innovation is in the private sector,” said Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Innovations in American Government Program, at an event announcing the honor Thursday in Washington. “This award leverages that and recognizes a role of government is to be a catalyst of innovation and cause innovation across the sectors. So this award is particularly fascinating because it says here is a federal activity, run by a federal activity that brings out innovation from the private and non-profit sectors and produces public good. That is all we want and all we can have in a single award and a single idea, and that single idea has obviously produced hundreds of opportunities at the various agencies.”

Since 2010 when then Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients signed a memo instructing the General Services Administration to create the platform and giving agencies guidance on how to run challenges, agencies have taken advantage of it.

GSA said 59 agencies have used the platform to run competitions that have awarded more than $300 million in prize money. It has received more than 3.6 million visitors from every state, from more than 10,000 cities and every country around the world.

Goldsmith said the platform engaged the private sector in a way that hadn’t been done on a wide scale before, and opened the door to many more participants.

“I think one of the interesting innovations about this is it’s a platform, it’s not just a program. It recognizes there is a lot of good ideas that come from crowdsourcing,” he said. “I think that the extension of innovation into citizen response, how can we engage citizens in solving problems together really is the future of public-private partnerships; it’s the future of what we call the co- production of government. It’s one of the reasons why this is such as powerful award.”

Goldsmith said the number of federal applications and award winners was down dramatically over the last few years. He said that’s why earning the top prize, which includes money to replicate the initiative, makes an important statement.

One other federal program from the departments of Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Treasury made the finals. It was the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, which is trying to help the nation’s most distressed neighborhoods through interventions addressing persistent crime, failing schools, crumbling housing and health disparities.

This is the 30th year of the innovation awards, and only one other federal program, also run by GSA, earned the honor in 2003.

Agencies have used the platform to run hundreds of competitions. Some of the most notable ones are:

  • The Federal Trade Commission held a challenge to block robocalls. “Nomorobo,” which allows incoming calls to be routed to a second telephone line. This second line can identify and hang up on illegal robocalls before they could ring through to users.
  • The Labor Department held a challenge to develop an application to make it easier to employ people with disabilities by listing opportunities in accessible templates and formats and setting up a simple code for companies to use to advertise openings.
  • NASA used a challenge to make a better astronaut glove, which is more flexible for astronauts.

Challenges and prize competitions quickly are becoming another way for agencies to reach out to the private sector that works, said Dan Tangherlini, GSA’s administrator.

“What’s exciting about it is, it really revolutionizes the way we go to market, ask people to help us resolve the issues in government and get work done,” he said. “Normally in a procurement process what we do is very carefully, and frankly to the smallest degree, describe the solution we are looking for. What we do in the challenge program is subvert that. We change it. We turn it around. We say we are not going to argue that we know everything. We’re going to suggest in fact that all we know is we have a specific problem. We will ask the collective, we will ask as many smart people as possible, people with great ideas, people who have been thinking of things, people who tinker in their garages, we are going to ask them to give us solutions.”

Congress and the White House also saw the potential, and as part of the America Competes Reauthorization Act, which the President signed into law in January 2011, included provisions to let agencies hold competitions and award up to $50 million in prize money.

“We know that prizes and challenges can work. They are uniquely capable of doing what contracts and grants can’t always do, for instance prizes can establish an ambitious goal without having to predict in advance which team or approach is most likely to succeed,” said John Holdren, the director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “They can reach beyond the usual suspects to increase the number and diversity of problems solvers tackling a particular problem. They can bring out of discipline perspectives to bear what wouldn’t otherwise be brought to bear on a problem. They can reap returns on an investment many times larger than the size of the purse. And perhaps most importantly, prizes pay only for success.”

Holdren said agencies will continue to look to challenges and prizes thanks to a new Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation led by NASA. The center will provide agencies with guidance on how best to design, implement and evaluate prizes.

NASA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and HHS, also is establishing strategies and policies to implement the authorities in the America Competes Act.


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