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Congress Simplifying a Process? Making Prizes more attractive to the Federal Government…

Prizes and competitions provide one way to stimulate innovation and tap “solver communities” that may not have been leveraged previously when considering some of our nation’s grand challenges (see my blog posting from the White House/ Case Foundation event on prizes and competitions in April where I discuss this assertion in more detail). Building on their work to drive the use of prizes and competitions in government, the White House Office and Science Technology Policy’s (OSTP) Tom Kalil and Robynn Sturm recently described a significant step towards enabling innovation through these methods on the OSTP blog. In this posting, they describe how during the week of July 19, “the Senate Commerce Committee approved the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 with a provision that could further empower public sector use of prizes and challenges to spur innovation. The Prize Competitions section of the Committee bill would provide Federal Agencies across the Executive Branch with explicit authority to conduct prize competitions. The prize authority provision draws heavily from S. 3530, the Reward Innovation in America Act of 2010, introduced by Senators Pryor and Warner in June.”

The impact of this legislation would be huge for conducting prizes and competitions government-wide. As I blogged last month, both on my featured jennovation series on Govloop and the Phase One Consulting Group Transformation in the Federal Sector Blog, there are several hurdles to federal Agencies conducting prizes and competitions, including explicit authorization by Congress to do so. The Pryor/Warner language would advance Agencies’ ability to use these innovative problem solving methods by granting and/or expanding several key exemptions and authorities, including:

  • General prize authority to EACH Agency head: Sec 24(b) states that “each head of an agency may carry out a program to award prizes competitively to stimulate innovation that has the potential to advance the mission of the respective agency.” Right now, some Agencies have the authority to conduct prizes and competitions. However many others do not. Having the explicit authority to award prizes is a crucial first step in paving the way for Agencies to consider these methods as viable options for problem solving and stimulating innovation.
  • Exemption from the Federal Advisory Committee Act for Judging: Sec 24(k)(4) states that “the Federal Advisory Committee Act (5 U.S.C. App.) shall not apply to any committee, board, commission, panel, task force, or similar entity, created solely for the purpose of judging prize competitions under this section.” FACA applies when an advisory committee is established or utilized by one or more Agencies, in the interest of obtaining advice or recommendations for the President or one or more Agencies or officers of the Federal government. This law requires advisory committees to follow a rigorous process for selection and meetings. Exempting judging panels will significantly relieve many of the procedural burdens currently associated with selecting prize winners through panels of expert judges.
  • Gift authority for prizes and competitions: Sec 24(m)(1) states that “support for a prize competition under this section, including financial support for the design and administration of a prize or funds for a monetary prize purse, may consist of Federal appropriated funds and funds provided by the private sector for such cash prizes. The head of an agency may accept funds from other Federal agencies to support such competitions.” Currently, if a non-governmental organization is paying for anything at all (financial or in-kind) agencies have to pay close attention to their gift authority. In most cases, a legal consultation and partnership agreement is required that details the Agency’s authorities for accepting gifts. In other cases, the federal government is prohibited from receiving gifts. This expanded gift authority, for the use of prizes and competitions, will significantly assist agencies in identifying the funds to support the prize “purse” and well as operational expenses, making prizes a more viable option still.

In the coming months I’ll be keeping a close eye on the progress of this legislation through the Senate. It’s hard enough to design and operate an effective prize and competition, but without a permitting legal framework the upfront procedural work can be so burdensome that they are never explored as viable options. This upfront procedural burden is one of the largest roadblocks for prizes and competitions. Thus, this legislation is a crucial piece of the puzzle to drive forward the President’s Innovation Agenda and the principles of Open Government.

Are there any other barriers to the use of prizes and competitions that you’ve seen torn down recently? Perhaps the promise of the www.challenge.gov portal to market and support the operation of prizes once they are identified?

As always, please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] at any time during this series to continue to conversation.


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Andrew Krzmarzick

Strange question, maybe, but is there a threshold for a cash prize – an amount that agencies should not exceed?

Jenn Gustetic

Not a strange question at all Andrew. In the Pryor/Warner language the following “limits” to amounts apply:


`(A) NOTICE TO CONGRESS- No prize competition under this section may offer a prize in an amount greater than $50,000,000 unless 30 days have elapsed after written notice has been transmitted to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Science and Technology of the House of Representatives.

(B) APPROVAL OF HEAD OF AGENCY- No prize competition under this section may result in the award of more than $1,000,000 in cash prizes without the approval of the head of an agency.

These “limits” are rather generous and rather serve as “approvals”. Even the Ansari space X prize wasn’t as high as $50M (http://space.xprize.org/ansari-x-prize). Though recently I’ve heard some really innovative folks talking about prize purses as high as $1B for some of the greater challenges of our time… 🙂