Last Week in Tech Policy #50: Open Innovation in the Federal Government

(By Connor Boe, Colorado Law 3L)

Federal agencies have been feeling the pressure to use fewer resources while at the same time creating better outputs for the public good. Traditionally, public services were created and implemented by government experts hired to solve a specific subset of civic problems. Some have argued that this method of solving problems has become too outdated, too bureaucratic, and too politically driven to effectively solve some public issues. People expect their government to do more with less and create innovative solutions to complex problems. How can government actors create effective solutions in the face of competing interests?

Many agencies have turned to a trend in that has its roots in the private sector known as Open Innovation. Federal agencies in the last decade or so have begun to experiment with new forms of problem solving like prize challenges, citizen science, crowdsourcing, and entrepreneurial methodologies. This new trend has had a profound impact on the way government functions and how the public perceives the work that agencies produce.

Prize Challenges: The Golden Goose of Government Innovation

A common misconception is that these innovative techniques are just taking off in the public sector. Governments have been using prize challenges for centuries with great success and this revival has deep roots in western public services. In 1714, the British Parliament issued a challenge to anyone who could create a device that accurately indicated a ships longitude while sailing. The winner, John Harrison, was a clockmaker who created the chronometer. This unlikely applicant created a device that would change naval navigation for centuries.

Jump ahead a few centuries to 2005: a pilot program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) offered a $1 million dollar Grand Challenge to anyone who could develop an autonomous vehicle. A team from Stanford University ended up netting $2 million of the multiphase prize challenge with their creation ‘Stanley’. This competition spurred the industry, enticing companies like Tesla, Google, and Uber to begin development of their own commercially viable autonomous vehicles.

After the success of DARPA’s Grand Challenge, Congress enacted the America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act (America COMPETES Act) of 2007. This authority was created during the Bush administration which gave federal science and technology agencies the authority to promote STEM education, develop emerging technologies, and run innovative programs including prize challenges. The statutory authority proved such a success that it was reauthorized in 2010 and in 2015, expanding prize challenge authority to all federal agencies.

Today more than 30 agencies have spent over $100 million in 770 prize competitions since 2011 ranging from technologies that grow vascular tissue in a test tubes for NASA, to creating a competitive market for solar power from the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative. This trend is growing and these innovative tools are becoming widely available across the federal government. Prize challenges approach public policy with the belief that even the most unlikely candidates can produce the best solutions to complex problems. All of the challenges that are available to innovative thinking people and organizations are posted on and the number of competitions is growing every day.

What other tools are available to agencies?

Though prize challenges are the most ubiquitously understood form of innovation in government, they are only a tool in a suite of options available to federal agencies for innovation. The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which became law in January, provides two new tools to federal agencies to involve constituents in public problem solving: Citizen Science and crowdsourcing.

Citizen Science is defined in the statue as “a form of collaboration in which individuals or organizations participate voluntarily in the scientific process in various ways . . . ” followed by a non-exhaustive list of activities. This statute opens the scientific process that agencies utilize to the public-at-large for meaningful contributions. Since January the number of science projects has risen to over 400 projects across 26 agencies looking for civic participation. These projects range from students and teachers measuring mercury levels in Dragonfly larvae for the USGS, to stargazers identifying objects flying through space for NASA. These projects allow citizens to volunteer their time and effort to provide data and measurements that contribute to larger scale research projects.

Crowdsourcing is “a method to obtain needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting voluntary contributions from a group of individuals or organizations”. This form of innovation gives citizens a chance to contribute quantitative and qualitative data to federal agencies which can decrease the level of government ground work needed in problem identification and understanding. Crowdsourcing is a useful tool in leveraging smartphones and other technologies in data collection. For example, the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Program allows citizens to transcribe and catalogue historical documents and biodiversity data making them more publicly accessible.

Other choices that agencies have available include cooperative agreements with the private sector, grant programs, and internal innovation promotion. CU’s Silicon Flatirons Center is helping state and local governments promote internal innovation by teaching government leaders and civic mined-students how to think like an entrepreneur in the Government Entrepreneurial Leadership Accelerator (GELA). These programs are popping up all across the country and there is a thriving market for civic innovation in the private sector. New methods of innovation are helpings save government resources while at the same time actively engaging the public to create innovative solutions to some difficult public problems.

Why don’t we see Open Innovation Opportunities more often?

There are many roadblocks for federal agencies to run innovative programs. The Paperwork Reduction Act, intellectual property regimes, the lack of internal infrastructure/ contract vehicles, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentalities can cause innovative efforts to be stopped before they can gain traction in an agency.

The Paperwork Reduction Act prevents agencies from collecting information from more than 10 people without approval from the Office of Management and Budget to reduce the burden on the public. This administrative regime makes it difficult for agencies to conduct prize challenges and other forms of innovation. The process for achieving OMB approval can be quite difficult if an agency is using a third-party vendor to assist in developing an innovative program.

Furthermore, when the government hires a third-party vendor to assist in their efforts there is a long process to have that contract awarded and approved before the challenge can even begin. In response to these complexities. NASA, an agency that has heavily relied on innovation to develop new technology, has created a contract vehicle that helps agencies run Prize challenges and other forms of government innovation. The Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI), created by NASA in 2011 at the request of the Office of Science and Technology (OSTP), is an incubator for these programs in the federal government.

CoCEI has helped agencies like the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Institute of Standards in Technology, and the US Patent and Trademark Office develop prize challenges and spurred a new generation of government problem solving. However, many of the contract vehicles that are designed for interagency use have pricing caps and come with a laundry list of restrictions. These checks prevent large scale prize challenges to utilize infrastructure that is in place and force agencies to develop new contract vehicles which can take up a lot of time and resources.

Finally, the public sector is a risk averse environment which can make innovation a difficult task. Often in government agencies, there is a mentality that if something is working, why change it? Many scholars have addressed the question of why this is an attractive model for agencies to adhere to, but in the new digital age where innovation happens in the blink of an eye, this is often an unworkable model.

What’s Next for Civic Open Innovation?

The government is changing and citizens expect that their public services are faster, more responsive, and use less resources. This innovation policy paradigm leaves a lot of questions looming for our current government model that need to be answered:

Are prize challenges an effective use of government money in spurring innovation? Or do they produce technologies and ideas that are rarely, if ever, implemented?

What role should regular citizens have in solving complex public policy issues? Should we be leaving this work to the experts?

Are these models of innovation long term solutions that create lasting solutions, or is there another way we can promote innovation in the public sector?