Supporting Innovation in the White House

Supporting Innovation in the White House


Over the past year and a half, gamification has been behind big changes at the White House and government agencies. Previously, government contracts have been determined by bidding between large firms that have a history with federal projects (imagine Boeing and Northrop Grumman bidding on contracts for a new jet fighter). But based off of successful models such as the X Prize, government agencies are exploring open prizes and competitions that create a surge of innovation for much lower costs and ultimately better results.

These challenges have proliferated because they work. From their roots in the Ansari X Prize which rewarded private space exploration programs, the public sector has grabbed on to the idea of challenges and taken it in new direction. From science and technology based competitions such as the Automotive X Prize, the model has grown to support health and social goals. Apps for Entrepreneurs to Apps for Healthy Kids, supported by the US Small Business Administration and the USDA, both work to propel innovation in social issues. has a series of challenges that support different federal initiatives across agencies.

A recent presentation by Robyn Sturm (skip to 1h 13m), Senior Advisor to the Deputy Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, goes over the details at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business. The model is as follows. Number one, the sponsor specifically defines a goal, or the finish line that competitors must cross in order to win. Number two, open up the problem and make the competitor pool as large as possible. Third, competitors race towards the goal on a specified timeline, usually for a cash purse. Although the cash purse is sometimes very large (upwards of $10 million in some cases), most teams compete for non-monetary benefits such as prestige, recognition, validation, and publicity.

In an interview Tom Kahlil, Deputy Director at OSTP points out that these changes have been a primary aspect of the Obama Administration’s jobs policy. The administration’s plan set out to take this model outside of defense, science and technology and provide challenges and prizes as an option for innovation across sectors. The Strategy for American Innovation and the America COMPETES Act gave all federal agencies the authority to hold these challenges.

Informal challenges and competitions are central to the private sector, and using gamification to implement these dynamic effects in the public sector has already uncovered innovative new solutions to long existing problems.


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