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Public-Sector Prizes Increased By 85 Percent


Three years after President Obama authorized federal agencies to use prizes to spur innovation, more than 280 challenges have been issued.

In fiscal year 2013, 25 federal agencies implemented 87 prize competitions to engage Americans in solving grand challenges, representing an 85 percent increase from the year prior. Competition results and trends are detailed in the White House office of Science and Technology Policy’s third annual report on the use of public-sector prizes competitions.

The Joyce Foundation works with the OSTP to encourage federal agencies to use prize competitions to solve technical, scientific or creative challenges. OSTP also created so federal agencies can issue challenges to a nation of problem solvers. Between the site launch in September 2010 and September 2013, 58 federal agencies have issued 288 challenges. That’s almost two new prize competitions every week.

For some agencies, prizes have become an integral part of their work. In 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services led the way and sponsored 28 competitions. HHS and the Environmental Protection Agency developed strategies and policies to spur the use of prizes across their agencies. NASA, HHS and the U.S. Agency for International Development also have staffers dedicated to leading prize design.

“To support these ongoing efforts, OSTP and the General Services Administration have trained over 1,200 agency staff through workshops, online resources, and an active community of practice,” Cristin Dorgelo, the White House Assistant Director for Grand Challenges, wrote in a blog post announcing the report’s release. “And NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (COECI) provides a full suite of prize implementation services, allowing agencies to experiment with these new methods before standing up their own capabilities.” Read more about trends in public-sector prizes on her blog post.

The Joyce Foundation supports innovative and collaborative approaches to yield solutions to today’s most pressing problems. The Foundation supports the use of  prize competitions to catalyze solutions to persistent social policy problems and engage communities, and achieve other goals. With prize competitions, sponsors can establish an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed – and then, pay only for success.

Prizes also expand the universe of likely “solvers,” reaching beyond the usual suspects within a field to increase the number of minds tackling a problem. This ability to bring out-of-discipline perspectives to bear is powerful: research from Harvard Business School shows that breakthrough solutions are most likely to come from outside the scientific discipline or at the intersection of two fields of study. Prize competitions also can inspire risk-taking by offering a level playing field through credible rules and robust judging mechanisms. And, once awarded, prizes add prestige and validation to winning approaches, helping to elevate what works, so other groups facing similar challenges can replicate or adapt proven solutions.

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