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figures for fiscal 2016 through mid-
August, which GSA provided to me (they have not been published yet) show that the number of challenges so far this fiscal year has already reached 115 and will certainly sur- pass last year’s total.
How innovation spreads
To any scholar who studies the dif- fusion of a new innovation across organizations, those numbers are significant. Innovations that success- fully spread from a small number of early-adopter organizations to eventu- ally include a large number of other organizations generally follow what is called an S curve pattern.
At the beginning, there are only a few innovators, and innovation spreads slowly to other organiza- tions over time — the flat portion of the S curve. But then a take-off point occurs, and the number of adopters quickly increases as organizations learn what is happening elsewhere and begin following the leaders.
At that point, innovation starts spreading rapidly from one organi- zation to another — the steep por- tion of the S curve. The spread of the innovation becomes self-sustaining. celebrated its fifth anniversary in October 2015 with a good deal of publicity, and that might have contributed to what has been happening this year. There was one big year-on-year increase before — from 49 challenges in fiscal 2012 to 90 in fiscal 2013. That was when the program was getting started, and it seemed to spread fast among early adopters. But there weren’t enough of them for self-sustaining growth, and increases slowed for two years.
The fiscal 2015 report suggests that many prize challenges are becoming more complex and powerful. There are fewer contests for low-end efforts such as developing a program logo. Last fiscal year, for example, the per- centage of prize competitions for
developing a stand-alone app declined notably.
By contrast, 17 percent of the fis- cal 2015 prize competitions sought to advance scientific research as a pri- mary goal, compared to 6 percent in fiscal 2014. More challenges are now organized around a portfolio of activi- ties on a common theme.
In fiscal 2015, agencies took a num- ber of steps to spread the word about prize challenges, complementing the information-sharing efforts GSA undertakes. For instance, a number of agencies involved in water availability and water ecosystem restoration, led by the Bureau of Reclamation, jointly established a Water Prize Competition Center to design, launch and judge prize challenges collaboratively in those areas.
And in July 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services piloted a two-week virtual boot camp that gave teams an opportunity to develop a prize idea in an accelerated, peer environment with access to men- tors and experts within and outside HHS. Two challenges were launched from that effort, and building on the pilot’s success, a full version of the boot camp was conducted in 2016.
In addition, GSA recently launched a website called PrizeWire, which seeks to communicate messages about prize challenges in more con- versational language and includes interviews with prize winners and government folks who manage com- petitions.
Unexpected participants
Two other agencies participating in prize challenges for the first time this year are the IRS and the National Geo- spatial-Intelligence Agency. I found their participation especially inter- esting because neither organization is known for encouraging the type of public interaction that innovation requires, though both agencies have increased their engagement efforts in
the past couple years.
The IRS organized a contest to
design an online experience that more clearly organizes and presents a person’s tax information, including ways to use tax data to help people with other financial decisions, such as applying for a loan. There were four prizes; the first prize for overall design was $10,000. The IRS received 48 entries.
Three of the four winners are user- interface designers and the fourth is a financial adviser. None of them work for government contractors, and all appear to be 20- or 30-somethings. The prize money was provided by the Mortgage Bankers Association, thanks to an innovative provision in the legislation authorizing challenges that permits prize money to be paid by private firms or other nongovern- mental organizations.
Incidentally, there is no agreement on what to call these things. When I started writing about them a num- ber of years ago, I generally used the word “contests,” which is a phrase used by academic economists. GSA’s activity is called, which is a nice turn of phrase but doesn’t say much about what these things are, while the Office of Science and Technology Policy report talks about prizes.
I hereby decide that, to simplify things, from now on I will call those initiatives “prize challenges,” and I welcome others to use that termi- nology.
What is exciting is that the num- bers for fiscal 2016 suggest that prize challenges are reaching a take-off point. This innovation is taking wing and flying. n
Steve Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. His blog can be found at
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