White House launches site asking for citizen help

The U.S. government is asking the public for help with some of its most vexing problems with the launch of a new website that offers rewards for the best ideas.

Challenge.gov, announced by U.S. government CTO Aneesh Chopra and CIO Vivek Kundra on Tuesday, will seek the public’s ideas on several problems government agencies want solved. As of Tuesday, Challenge.gov listed 36 challenges from 16 U.S. agencies, with most of the challenges offering cash prizes.

Challenge.gov “will build out an accountable, results-oriented ecosystem that is fueled by grassroots, bottom-up organizations in the public,” Kundra said at the Gov. 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C. 

The site will “engage the American people in new and creative ways to solve real and practical problems,” he added.

The U.S. Department of Energy is offering US$15 million in prizes in a contest to create ultra-efficient lighting products. Nine other contests listed as of Tuesday offer prizes of $1 million or more, and several contests offered prizes of $5,000 or less.

Other contests offered the winners publicity or a pat on the back from a grateful government. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has challenged universities to reduce the garbage generated at football games, with publicity going to the winners in several categories.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is asking for people to submit photographs of national historic landmarks, with the winners’ pictures displayed on the National Park Service website. This is the 11th anniversary of the contest.

Other challenges listed on Challenge.gov are new. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and First Lady Michelle Obama want teams of people to create tasty and healthy recipes that can be used in school lunch programs. Winning teams will be invited to prepare their recipes alongside White House chefs, and the challenge includes $12,000 in prize money.

Challenge.gov is part of a “fundamental shift” in the way government works, Kundra said. “What Challenge.gov does is it engages the American people to be co-creators in creating solutions to some of the toughest problems this country faces,” he added. 

People who go to Challenge.gov can vote on problems and solutions offered there, in addition to competing in the challenges, Kundra said. People who sign on to support a challenge will get updates of its progress.

There’s a long history of challenges by private funding groups in the U.S., said Bev Godwin, director of new media and citizen engagement at the U.S. General Services Administration, the agency administering Challenge.gov. In 1919, New York hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize to the first pilot who could fly nonstop between New York and Paris.

Charles Lindbergh won the prize in 1927. The challenge launched the private air industry, Godwin said.

Later this month, sponsors of the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize will announce the winner of the $10 million competition to create an automobile that gets 100 miles on a gallon of gasoline, she noted.

One major goal was to make Challenge.gov easy to use, Godwin said. Agencies “can quickly post challenges in literally a matter of minutes, without any technical skills,” she said.

President Barack Obama, in his September 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, called on U.S. agencies to increase their use of prizes and challenges to promote innovation. In March, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a memorandum providing a policy and legal framework to guide agencies in using prizes.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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