Art of the innovation challenge: GSA unveils the ultimate design guide

Drawing on six years of experience, cities, states and feds can benefit from a new toolkit filled with practical advice on how to hold events that generate new ideas.

Since the General Services Administration launched in 2010, the agency has recorded 742 innovation challenges hosted by federal agencies, offices and departments. Now, is releasing a Challenges and Prizes Toolkit that offers federal agencies — and city and state leaders — the ultimate guide for hosting competitions of their own.

Published by the White House and GSA, the guide delivers a walkthrough of the types of challenges and the tactics to host them. The toolkit is meant to standardize best practices learned from the many challenges held in recent years, according to DigitalGov, a GSA innovation and collaboration outfit.

“Over the past year, experts at agencies across government have devoted their time to creating a ‘how-to’ resource to help others who also want to try something different in their efforts to uncover new ideas and inventions,” the DigitalGov team wrote on Medium.

While the resource is intended for agencies, the guide is equally applicable at the local level, and perhaps even more so considering the hundreds of hackathons and competitions that cities, counties and states hold each year. The guide contains a taxonomy of challenge types, categories that competition designers might refer to after they’ve identified a challenge’s targeted outcomes.


The toolkit bakes these into seven categories:

1. Analytics
2. Design
3. Entrepreneurship
4. Ideas
5. Scientific
6. Software
7. Technology

Similarly, the walkthrough slices the process into a set of five steps, sending officials down a chute that starts with preparation and goal setting and ends with awards and the transition process, a critical step. The toolkit breaks down the post-competition transition process with tips on documentation, followup civic engagement and scaling, and managing a solution through partnerships, procurement, on in-house maintenance.  

“The toolkit will equip public servants with critical resources to engage citizens in the search for innovative solutions and gives agencies access to additional expertise for designing more ambitious and impactful competitions,” the DigitalGov team said.

Jumping past written instruction, what might be most valuable in the toolkit is what’s attached to it — namely, a mentorship network that was started in 2015 and offers free consultation service. The DigitalGov team explained that if visitors to the site may have “a more nuanced and unique situation,” they can turn to the site’s volunteer network, which is composed of experienced challenge coordinators. 


Additionally, 19 case studies round out the toolkit’s contents.

In a statement, the White House described the toolkit as a way to launch more challenges that have now turned into “a proven tool to spur innovation, often at a fraction of the cost of more traditional approaches.” 

The White House pointed out that in addition to cost savings and innovations, challenges have also spurred entrepreneurial activity, and credited competitions like the National Institute of Health’s Breast Cancer Startup Challenge and the Small Business Association’s Growth Accelerator Fund with forming more than 300 startups.

“By utilizing this toolkit to more effectively design and run incentive prizes, federal employees will be capable of tackling increasingly complex challenges by leveraging open innovation challenges,” the White House stated. “Moreover, agency leadership will be better positioned to build capacity within their workforce by expanding on this shared resource and creating agency-specific processes, training, and centers of excellence.”

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