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White House Plans Innovation Prize Platform

The government plans to release a Web-based platform for federal agencies to use prizes and challenges to crowdsource innovative approaches to government problems.

The White House is encouraging federal agencies to use challenges and prizes to crowdsource new approaches to open government, innovation, and other administration priorities.

In a memo issued Monday, federal chief performance officer Jeff Zients laid out guidance for how federal agencies could use challenges and prizes to further their missions, and announced that the administration would be releasing a Web-based platform to manage such contests within the next 120 days.

Over the longer term, Zients wrote, the General Services Administration will provide government-wide services to share best practices and help agencies develop challenges, as well as provide a contract vehicle to allow agencies to procure the Web services and other technologies necessary for conducting these challenges. The White House is also recommending that agencies appoint individuals to head up their challenge and prize efforts.

Such guidance doesn't come unexpectedly. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, who introduced the Apps for Democracy contest when he was CTO of Washington, D.C., often says that the government does not have a monopoly on good ideas, and has repeatedly advocated for the use of prize platforms for the federal government as a way to increase innovation in government.

With leadership on board, government-issued prizes to award innovation for government look ready to become more widespread. Some agencies are already getting off the ground.

Last week, for example, the Army launched an internal Web application development contest that would award developers who best meet a number of criteria with cash prizes from a pool of $30,000. In a bid to study social networks, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Association's Network Challenge recently awarded $40,000 to a team that found a dozen balloons randomly placed in public spaces around the country.

In the memo, Zients raised a number of possible benefits for efforts like these. If properly used, he said, prizes and challenges could help the government "pay only for results," highlight certain key administration efforts, increase the number of people dedicated to solving government's problems, stimulate private sector investment, and "establish important goal[s] without having to choose the approach that is most likely to succeed."

However, in setting up their own challenges, agencies will have to consider a number of legal and policy issues, as Zients outlines in his memo. For example, agencies will need to consider how and whether competitions will use intellectual property, whether prize awards may need to meet different compliance requirements depending on their value, and if state law may apply differently than federal law in certain states.

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