Challenges buy government what contracts can’t

When the government needs to buy supplies or capital items, or it needs to develop a new bomber, it awards a contract. But what if it needs answers that aren’t for sale in the classic sense?

Jenn Gustetic says contracts are how you access value available from companies. But over the past five years, the executive branch has found an effective and relatively inexpensive way to tap into the brain power of individuals. Namely, challenge grants.

Gustetic is the assistant director for open innovation at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. On my show this morning, she noted that as the challenge grant program crosses its fifth birthday, it’s awarded 450 prizes to some 200,000 individuals for a total of about $150 million.

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OSTP has used crowdsourcing and challenge grants to solve problems. Photo: Insidescience.org

I like the thinking behind challenge grants. It recognizes that no organization, not even one as vast as the federal government, knows everything. The challenge grant idea uses the popular crowdsourcing notion, but the challenges are set up essentially to keep out trolls and the unqualified. For instance, the National Security Agency is running a challenge having to do with code breaking. It requires a “.edu” email address to register.

Other challenges are judged by panels of experts so non-serious ideas can’t get through. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking for a way to reduce the occurrences of venous thromboembolisms by identifying medical organizations that have already found ways to reduce this life threatening condition, and spreading the knowledge.

The anniversary of Challenge.gov comes as OSTP is celebrating what it calls open innovation. A detailed blog post by Gustetic and Tom Kalil, the deputy director for technology and innovation, summarizes years of crowdsourcing, challenge prizes and the idea of citizen science. During the month-long celebration, OSTP published its toolkit for agencies to use in their own crowdsourcing efforts. The site has case histories of successful crowdsourcing efforts together with how-to advice for doing a project of your own.

Even with the government’s tremendous purchasing power, you can’t always buy what you want.