Using Challenge Competitions for Problem-Solving
In January 2011, President Obama signed into the law the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, granting all federal agencies broad authority to conduct challenge competitions to spur innovation, solve tough problems, and advance their core missions (Public Law No. 111-358, 15 U.S.C. 3719). Challenges are open competitions to solve problems in which a prize is awarded only if an eligible contestant satisfies the criteria established for winning a prize for that challenge. It is a powerful “open innovation” tool that can be quite effective at generating new ideas, new technology solutions, and novel approaches. While several agencies conducted challenge competitions before the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, Section 105 of this legislation has been significant by creating a an additional legal pathway to use appropriated federal funds for support prize incentives.
HHS stands at the forefront of agency implementation efforts. As an example of the framework for challenge competitions that HHS established, Secretary Sebelius delegated the authority to conduct challenge competitions to the Heads of all Operating and Staff Divisions on April 22, 2011. In October 2011, Secretary Sebelius issued a memorandum notifying the Department of the new challenge competition authority provided under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, outlining the strategy to optimize the use of challenge competitions, and calling on the heads of Operating and Staff Divisions to forecast their future use of challenge competitions to stimulate innovation in advancing the agency’s mission. The memorandum also highlighted the implementation framework established to accelerate the use of well-designed challenge competitions. For example, Secretary Sebelius delegated the authority to conduct challenge competitions to the Heads of all Operating and Staff Divisions. The Department also developed judging guidelines [as required by Section 24(k)(3)] governing principles outlining responsibilities for challenge managers, a financial management policy for challenge competitions, and a vehicle to share best practices across the Department. The full set of policy statements, guidance, and resources are available online at: http://www.hhs.gov/idealab/pathways/hhs-competes/. The toolkit and guidance documents have been heralded as model by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. In addition, a number of our Operating and Staff Divisions have hosted their own conferences and created their own training materials to promote the use of challenge competitions for specific Operating and Staff Divisions. For example in July 2011, NIH held a conference entitled, Crowdsourcing: the Art and Science of Open Innovation, that brought together many of the leading experts in challenge competition design.
The most ambitious project launched by any HHS agency under the new challenge competition authority in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act in FY2011 is the HHS Investing in Innovation (i2) initiative, a new $5 million program to spur innovations in Health Information Technology (Health IT). Led by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), the core of i2 is a series of challenge competitions to accelerate innovation and adoption of Health IT for improved clinical outcomes and efficient care delivery. Innovation challenges encourage development in priority areas identified by HHS, but also foster significant community building within the development community. Typically 3-6 months in duration, a challenge effort offers a chance for external developers, many new to health care, to provide solutions to key health IT challenges. Innovators who participate in challenges are offered the opportunity to compete against other solution providers and receive detailed feedback on how to improve their innovations. The challenge process offers the opportunity for entrepreneurship in a manner that is catalyzed by federal resources. ONC plans to run a substantial number of challenges in the near future and has allocated funds for more than 30 challenges over the next two years.
Since the launch of our first Open Government plan, HHS has administered nearly 50 challenges, many of which have been listed on challenge.gov. In addition, HHS partnered with a number of outside entities and provided support to their challenge efforts. In a memorandum issued in October 2011 the Secretary requested a challenge forecast from each agency. Based on the inputs received, the Department expects to issue at least 50 challenges in 2012. Nearly every agency – including ASPR, CDC, CMS, FDA, IHS, FDA, NIH, ONC, SAMHSA, and OS – expressed interest in running challenges. Areas of future interest for challenge competitions include:
- new uses of social media tools for reaching HHS stakeholders;
- development of apps and mobile tools to improve public health in priority areas such as suicide prevention;
- reaching persons who have breaks in health coverage; and
- the sharing of best practices in areas such as care coordination, workforce development and training.
Notably, CMS plans a 2012-launch for a large-scale challenge competition to produce and evaluate a shared services solution for states to identify Medicaid provider eligibility.
In 2012 and beyond, the Innovation Council will capitalize on the Department’s emerging interest in challenge competitions through continuing to develop guidance documents on topics such as compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) in challenge competitions, as well developing as clear pathways to let HHS challenge managers obtain the necessary PRA clearances as expeditiously as possible. The Innovation Council is also taking a lead role on promoting training activities. For example, the Council plans to develop an education component on challenge competitions as part of the 2012 Health Data Initiative Forum III: the Health Datapalooza.