Challenge.Gov – A Model for Government Crowdsourcing

The US Government’s initiative to use crowdsourcing to solve pressing issues.

In 2010, the United States Federal government launched Challenge.gov, an online platform that engages the public in solving pressing issues facing federal agencies. Agencies can create challenges, review proposals from the public, and then award prizes to the top entries. As an example, the Department of Education launched a challenge to develop an application that helps students make better decisions of which careers to pursue. The challenge received over five hundred submissions and allowed the Department of Education to initiate a top-rated application that connected thousands of students to the resources and information needed to pursue technical education or to access retraining programs when their jobs had been displaced.

The federal government should increase its funding in open innovation platforms to source and solve issues.  In particular, there are important reasons why governments should adopt open innovation platforms: (1) most agencies do not have the expertise to innovate as quickly a crowdsourced platform; (2) the cost to innovate for a large bureaucracy is higher than those using a crowdsourcing platform; and (3) it allows agencies explore a wide variety of solutions to issues often overlooked by large agencies. Crowdsourcing platforms minimize risk and encourage innovation by receiving hundreds of solutions but only paying for those that meet the criteria they set for the competition. Online tools are making it easier for government institutions to get more diverse help and more members of the public to participate in problem solving by sharing their knowledge and expertise. But organizations need individuals with technical background to successfully run such platforms.

A key decision taken by Executive branch is to invest in talented, tech-minded individuals who can apply their technical expertise to address issues facing the government. In particular, the Obama Administration launched the Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, an initiative that pairs individuals with a technical background from outside government with top Federal innovators to implement game-changing projects that make the Federal Government work better for the American people.  In addition to the Fellows, the federal government launched the US Digital Service, a one year-tour for individuals with coding, design, and technical backgrounds to improve government services. Recruiting diverse, technical talent is a necessary first step in improving the adoption of technologies in federal agencies.

The federal government ought to encourage state and local governments to adopt open innovation platforms – similar to Challenge.gov – as a means of better identifying local issues and announcing challenges to solve them. An example of this occurred in Mexico City, where the city government kept getting complaints that there was no public information on the routes the buses took; it was impossible for the roughly three million riders to plan a route from point A to point B. The Mayor, partnered with a local organization, Mapaton, to generate open data of the public transport routes. They designed a game where users could upload their routes, and aggregated the data that mapped all the routes.  After 17 days of mapping with 3.6K riders, the entire city was mapped. For the millions of riders that depended on public transportation, they now had access to all the routes and were able to cut commute cost and time. Examples like these demonstrate that governments do not necessarily have to solve issues, but rather can convene the right players to do so.

The federal government should provide incentives for state and local governments to adopt open innovation platforms.  One way to encourage such adoption would be to require local governments who use federal funding to include crowdsourced solutions as part of their request for proposal (RFP) process when soliciting offers. In addition, state governments should replicate programs similar to the US Digital Service that attract technical talent to leverage new technologies in the public sphere. Such actions can help to reduce costs innovate, improve public engagement, and engage a broader, diverse set of stakeholders in civic engagement.

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19 thoughts on “Challenge.Gov – A Model for Government Crowdsourcing

  1. Thanks for posting!

    I’m curious if crowd sourcing government initiatives exposes the U.S. to risk of influence from outside players? It doesn’t feel impossible that a foreign agency could submit an entry under a concealed identity. If that entry is selected, the agency may then manipulate exposures that were unknown to the US.

    Further, I wonder if the received responses will be skewed towards those actively engaged in politics and therefore may not be the most accurate representation of the target community. For instance, homelessness is a very real problem, however homeless people generally have limited access to a computer in comparison to an HBS student. If I find a challenge by the U.S. government crowdsourcing how to end homelessness in the U.S., I am able to submit an idea, but I’m also less attuned to the root cause of the problem and viable solutions than the people it impacts. There needs to be an element here of also crowdsourcing the selected solution with the people that the government is trying to serve.

    1. Completely agree. As I was going through the essay, I had the same thought about the recent political “election meddling” clashes between US and Russia. This is the issue where you have to find trade off between the level of control to ensure security and the freedom to pursue innovation and openness to the public initiative. How you can ensure that the input from the public is genuine, rather than produced by organized external movement designed to influence the public opinion?

  2. Bringing crowdsourcing into a government context is an intriguing idea – both for the potential cost / innovation advantages, and the fundamental precept of opening up access to government more widely to the governed.

    The example cited in the post about the Department for Education’s app seems to be an opening up of the traditional request for proposal (RFP) process as opposed to necessarily a classic crowdsourcing approach to content. That is to say, presumably the agency is going to pick a single app to run with and pay the creator accordingly. If that is the case, once development companies discover this area then it is logical to assume that app development shops will begin pitching in to these competitions; it is also presumably likely that established businesses (who would respond to a classic RFP in the normal course of events) will win due to its superior resources and understanding of government requirements vs an individual citizen. Therefore, it feels like there is a risk here that the ultimate outcome is simply an additional layer of cost for government procurement.

  3. I think crowdsourcing of ideas by programs like challenge.gov is a great concept, but I think the greater challenge lies with finding the technical talent to effectively execute on the ideas. I think state and local governments should partner with tech companies rather than individuals to execute on the best ideas that they have generated, similar to what was done in Mexico. The result could be a win-win, with the tech companies receiving positive publicity for helping the public sector and the government receiving the technical support needed to carry out its initiatives.

  4. Great article. Crowdsourcing for government initiatives is a great talent identifier and merit based selection technique for applicants. I however wonder how much of the subset of talented individuals the government may risk not attracting should they choose not to opt in to this self selection mechanism. As a low cost hiring tool, I think that the platform is a great idea. I however wonder how it could be further developed in the medium term to (1) reach as wide an audience as possible and (2) function better as a selection technique. Moreover, do you see this system as supplementary to the traditional hiring process or a new path forward in HR and if so, is crowdsourcing as a hiring technique a viable substitute across different industries.

  5. I love how the federal government is using crowd-sourcing to innovate and solve their unique issues. I think it can work well in this setting where finding solutions helps the overall business and does not happen at the expense of someone. For instance, as a contrasting example, I heard that at NASA one of their big concerns was that by crowd-sourcing, their scientists might get bypassed on the glory of finding a solution — ultimately affecting morale (especially if someone has been working on a problem for many years).

  6. This article reminds me of an initiative in Canada where advances in FitTech are being crowdsourced. My immediate reaction to Canada and to your article is the security implications. What controls are in place to balance creativity with safety?

  7. First of all, thank you for the excellent article. I think that open innovation platforms are an excellent tool for slower, bureaucratic institutions (e.g. the federal government). These institutions face problems innovative and iterating rapidly. However, I see problems when implementing the solutions put forth by local citizens. In part, this is due to the lack of STEM employees within the organization and the lack of leadership with strong STEM backgrounds. Open innovative platforms will open the flood gates to innovative solutions (an excellent outcome), but these innovative solutions may lack movement, creating even more disillusionment with the Government among the citizenry. Last, the ties to RFPs are a good start, but I think the Government would be best served if they could move these initiatives forward through local voting initiatives and by providing full transparency of the process.

    1. Totally agree. We need to figure out how to get to the next level – both in terms of implementing the solutions, but also understanding how these solutions fit into the grand context of the government. I think, while crowdsourcing is a valuable tool to bring forth new ideas, we cannot run away from hiring technical talent in the government to internalize these ideas and prototypes.

    2. Devin raises a great point on “opening the flood gates”… What would you recommend as best practices for monitoring, reviewing, quality checking, and ultimately selecting the best ideas that emerge from crowd sourcing? How can you ensure that the review process is thorough, equitable, and that you maintain trust in the content producers by ensuring that the winning idea is ultimately implemented?

      Overall, interesting read, and I loved the anecdote from Mexico City on improving bus route information!

  8. Great read, thank you very much for the article. Given our discussion in LEAD today about getting buy-in from stakeholders, I wonder how invested / interested current government agencies are in having outsiders fix their problems. I think the overall concept is a great idea and obviously has worked really well in the tech industry, but I’m a bit skeptical that bureaucrats will implement as many of the changes suggested through crowd sourcing as proponents of this program would hope for. If that is the case, I wonder how you could get them ‘up the curve’ of acceptance and instill a greater culture of innovation and change.

  9. It is very impressive to see a model that works here. I Strongly believe that for this to work in other regions like Nigeria where I am from, there has to be a fundamental mindset shift from “it is the government’s responsibility to fix our social and economic challenges towards this is our collective problem”.

    The idea of having government led crowdsourcing platform truly brings out the best of democracy. I would love to learn more about the challenges they faced while implementing this and its key learnings. Lastly, I wonder, how can this model be exported to other countries? that is if it can be exported.

  10. Very interesting article! I think this is a great idea, not only to reduce risk and cost for the government but also to raise awareness and engagement of important social issues. Americans are likely to want to spend time to help solve pressing social issues, so are more motivated to engage in such projects. It creates a more Democratic society! One question I have is how Challenge.gov is collecting a diverse set of opinions and skills and how they are publicizing this initiative. While I believe our generation is very tech savvy and can be targeted through social media, the older generation may not be as engaged online and therefore, not have their voices heard.

  11. This was a cool article. The processes in challenge.gov reminded me a bit of code.gov, which is a federal repository of computer code that agencies can share between each other. The idea is that the federal government is large enough to attract software solutions to big problems, but then these solutions can be spread out to smaller parties that may not be able to attract the same talent. Without the federal government’s help, I’m not sure smaller governments will have the resources to create programs like challenge.gov. Even if smaller governments can create these programs, it might only work for larger cities; I really like what Mexico City was able to do, but I’m curious if this strategy could work as well in a smaller city like Wichita, KS.

  12. This was an interested initiative to feature – thank you for sharing it! I think there are some examples of municipalities who have already embraced this concept, albeit in less tech-enabled ways. Cambridge gets very excited about their participatory budgeting initiatives (https://pb.cambridgema.gov/), and some great ideas have come through that channel, including the residential composting. I find it notable, however, that participation is so low; Cambridge – a fairly civically-engaged town- had only 6.8k residents participate last year. Motivating residents, whether it be at the local or national level, to engage in innovation when we can barely get them to vote feels like a tremendous challenge.

  13. At the end of your post, you pose the idea of requiring local governments to use crowd-sourced solutions. While I think that great ideas can certainly be uncovered through crowd-sourcing, I also fear that there is a risk of it becoming the next sexy, innovative approach to public policy that isn’t necessarily the most efficient use of government time or funding. For example, social entrepreneurship became a big focus area roughly a decade ago and numerous government entities created programs that direct funding to social enterprises. As a result, sometimes funding is directed to small social enterprise when the issue would really be better addressed through investment in infrastructure development etc. Crowd-sourcing worked really well in the situation in Mexico City because the issue was well defined and the solution could clearly benefit from the aggregated input of numerous citizens. Hearing the perspectives and ideas of constituents is certainly useful, but I’m not sure that it is something we should look to as a silver bullet or a new requirement within the government.

  14. This is a very interesting read. I agree with you that crowdsourcing should be more widely implemented for the government to know more about its people and address issues. As in the case of Mexico City, I think this is also a great way to reduce costs and burden of the government as it leverages the ideas and input of civilians to improve the community. This also helps create buy-in from the people as they feel that their contribution is valued and appreciated.

  15. I don’t think governments lack innovative ideas – it’s often that implementing innovative ideas are difficult. Your suggestion of mandating that governments include aspects of ideas from an open source platform in their RFP is an interesting one, but I worry that it’s just adding another layer of bureaucracy to an already bureaucratic process.

  16. Wow this is really fascinating. Out of curiosity, are there are regulations and laws to prevent companies that might get a financial or political benefit from this from biasing the results? Having said that, I think this could be a great way for the federal government to come up with ideas to ensure that we are correctly targeting the beneficiaries of federal programs as well as cut down waste and fraud.

    One more question, are federal employees trained well enough to be able to pick good ideas from bad ones? Do they have the resources to make the right decisions?

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