Engage Innovators Inside and Outside Government

Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science

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“The potential of crowdsourcing and citizen science is limitless: solving puzzles, formulating new approaches to science, to creating entirely new hypotheses and eventually being able to test them. Really, the only limit is our imagination”

Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Crowdsourcing and citizen science are tools that educate, engage, and empower the public to apply their curiosity and contribute their talents to a wide range of real-world problems. By enabling and scaling the use of open innovation methods such as citizen science and crowdsourcing, the federal government is increasingly harnessing the public’s ingenuity to accelerate science and technology innovation, and improve government’s efficiency and effectiveness. Crowdsourcing is an online, distributed problem-solving and production model where organizations submit an open call for voluntary assistance. Through citizen science, members of the public participate voluntarily in the scientific process, addressing real-world problems in ways that may include formulating research questions, conducting scientific experiments, collecting and analyzing data, interpreting results, making new discoveries, developing technologies and applications, and solving complex problems. Members of the public can contribute to a wide range of scientific and societal problems, including public health, disaster response, biodiversity research, and astronomy.”

Citizenscience.gov is an official government website designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government. The site provides a portal to three key assets for federal practitioners:

  • a searchable catalog of federally supported crowdsourcing and citizen science projects
  • a toolkit to assist with designing and maintaining projects, and
  • a gateway to a federal community of practice (COP) to share best practices.

In September 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) outlined the benefits of citizen science and crowdsourcing approaches that can help federal agencies including:

  • Enhance scientific research
  • Address societal needs
  • Provide hands-on learning and increase literacy of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

Enhance scientific research

Citizen science and crowdsourcing help enhance and accelerate scientific research through group discovery and co-creation of knowledge. Volunteers can collect data over large geographic areas and long periods of time that federal agencies may not be able to do given resource constraints. Volunteers also can provide unique perspectives and local expertise for interpreting data such as categorizing millions of objects or finding solutions to complex problems that computer algorithms may not be able to solve.

Address societal needs

Citizen science and crowdsourcing projects can boost and enhance the scientific process and address other societal needs while drawing on the vast skills, dedication, and ingenuity of the American people. Diverse participation by all parts of society brings in new ideas and insights and contributes to solutions. They can address societal needs and federal agency goals, ranging from enhancing the accuracy of prediction markets to tagging and transcribing national archives and records.

Provide hands-on learning and increase literacy of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

Adult and student participants in crowdsourcing and citizen science projects can acquire a life-long enthusiasm for science, along with valuable STEM skills. Students working on real-world problems can make classroom learning experiences more exciting, and adults can advance their knowledge and skills while contributing to the larger scientific enterprise. They might become more involved in community decision-making because citizen science and crowdsourcing projects helps citizens and communities gain STEM literacy and learn about issues important to them.


  • The Aggregative Contingent Estimation (ACE) Program, sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, enhances the accuracy, precision, and timeliness of forecasts for a broad range of global events. Launched in 2010, ACE is based on the idea that combining forecasts made by an informed and diverse group of people often produces more accurate predictions of future events than those made by a single expert.

  • CoCoRaHS — Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network provides a way for volunteers to collect and submit local precipitation data and educate the public. CoCoRaHS is now used in peer-reviewed publications, in classrooms around the country, and in local communities to promote awareness of weather effects

  • The U.S. Department of State’s MapGive supports a global open mapping initiative with learning tools, satellite imagery, technical services, event support, and networks in the global OpenStreetMap and humanitarian communities.


Agencies should apply these principles, where relevant, when designing crowdsourcing and citizen science projects:

  1. Data quality. Federal agencies should ensure that data have the appropriate level of quality, credibility, and usability for the project. Also, citizen science projects should incorporate the same practices followed by all science projects, including data-quality assurance, data management, and ongoing project evaluation; relevant federal and agency policies for scientific integrity and ethics; and other applicable agency principles, policies, and practices.

  2. Openness. Information is a valuable national resource and a strategic asset to the federal government, its partners, and the public, which should be preserved and shared. Federal agencies should design projects that generate datasets, code, applications, and technologies that are transparent, open, and available to the public, consistent with applicable intellectual property, security, and privacy protections. Agencies should use machine-readable formats to share data, metadata, and results with project volunteers and the public.

  3. Public participation. Public engagement enhances the government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Project participation should be fully voluntary. Volunteers should receive acknowledgment for their contributions, understand how their contributions are meaningful to the project, and how they will benefit from participating. Where appropriate, agencies should consider engaging other countries or regions with relevant experience, programs, or citizenry to provide useful scientific data on issues that span national borders and build international understanding of shared scientific challenges.

Actions and Considerations

The Federal Toolkit for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science includes five basic process steps for planning, designing, and carrying out a crowdsourcing or citizen science project (adapted from Bonney et al. (2009). Each step includes a list of tips you can use to keep your project on track.

  1. Scope out your problem: Know your tools, engage your stakeholders and participants, know where your project fits, and get approval from your supervisors.

  2. Design a project: Know your objectives, list your resources, plan project management, and get ready to go.

  3. Build a community: Know your community partners, engage your community, nurture your community, and be sensitive to socio-cultural issues.

  4. Manage your data: Think of your data as an asset, prepare a data management plan, and acquire, process, analyze, share, and preserve your data.

  5. Sustain and improve: Adapt to cycles of participation, communicate effectively, solicit feedback from your participants, sustain your project funding, evaluate your data’s quality, evaluate your participants’ engagement, build flexibility into your project, and know how to end your project.

Interested in bringing crowdsourcing and citizen science and crowdsourcing into your work in the federal government?

  1. Join the Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science to share lessons learned and develop best practices for designing, implementing, and evaluating crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives.
  2. Network within your agency and check the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog for collaboration opportunities.
  3. Use the Federal Toolkit for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science to design and carry out a citizen science project.
  4. Contribute lessons learned and best practices back to the community, and add your project to the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Catalog!

# Policies

In December 2016, Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, which adds new authority for agencies to undertake crowdsourcing and citizen science projects. While citizen science has long been conducted by federal agencies, this new law explicitly recognizes the value of this approach and gives agencies the capacity to carry out the projects.

OSTP published a memorandum on September 30, 2015 entitled Addressing Societal and Scientific Issues through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing, which outlines principles that agencies should apply in order to ensure the greatest value and impact of citizen science and crowdsourcing. It also recommends agency actions to build capacity and provides examples of successful applications.

Legal and Policy Considerations There are many relevant legal and regulatory issues you may confront when launching citizen science and crowdsourcing projects. Certain non-federal resources have worked to identify these issues including the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Its Commons Lab within the Science and Technology Innovation Program provides independent and rigorous analysis of emerging technologies, networks, and methods that mobilize public participation in science, technology, and policy. In April 2015, it published Crowd Sourcing, Citizen Science, and the Law by Robert Gellman, which addresses some of the administrative, legal, and ethical frameworks for using citizen science and crowdsourcing.


  • Citizenscience.gov is an official government website designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government. The site provides a portal to three key assets for federal practitioners: a searchable catalog of federally supported citizen science projects, a toolkit to assist with designing and maintaining projects, and a gateway to a federal community of practice (CoP) to share best practices. Additional resources can be found in the Resource Library.
  • The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in June 2017 reviewing federal guidance for open innovation, including citizen science and crowdsourcing. Open Innovation: Executive Branch Developed Resources to Support Implementation, but Guidance Could Better Reflect Leading Practices.
  • The Citizen Science Association is a growing professional organization dedicated to sharing expertise.
  • Scistarter.com is a place to find, join, and contribute to science through more than 1600 formal and informal research projects, events and tools.
  • The Crowd and the Cloud is a four-part public television series that explores the potential and challenges of citizen science.

Engaging Startups

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Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: As budgetary cuts reduce available resources, government agencies can meet their mission goals engaging with small businesses and startups.

There are a few differences between small businesses and startups. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) describes a small business as "independently owned and operated, organized for profit, and not dominant in its field." Serial entrepreneur and author Steve Blank describes a startup as a "temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model." It has to prove its business model quickly in a way that affects its target market. People who create startups intend to grow quickly and become a large company.

The driving force behind startups and small businesses is different. The small business owner wants to be her own boss and secure a place in the local market. The startup founder wants to disrupt the market with a scalable and impactful business model.

They're also funded differently: while both a small business and startup are usually funded by self or friends and family from the start; if a startup succeeds, it will receive more series of funding from angel investors, venture capitalist, and eventually, an initial public offering (IPO).

Although the startup founder and small business owner are both entrepreneurs, the intent, primary function, and funding of their respective business models are radically different. Despite their differences, knowing their purpose and organizational structure will help to work with them more effectively.

Governments gain many benefits for increase their engagement with startups and small businesses:

  • Access alternatively designed, priced, or produced solutions than those offered by traditional providers
  • Lower the risk of new, cutting-edge technologies from startups for widespread adoption in the private sector
  • Increase the available talent and resource pool
  • Catalyze new innovations that broadly benefit the U.S. people

Startup and Small Business Challenges

While a startup focuses on exponential growth and a small business focuses on incremental growth, they both face similar challenges when engaging with government agencies.

These challenges include having a high barrier to entry, specifically a costly procurement pipeline, misconceptions about intellectual property, and maintaining their innovative culture.

  1. A costly procurement pipeline: The procurement pipeline can be understood as the nature and order of events that must take place when the federal government wishes to buy a service or product from the private sector. The federal government, as the ultimate big customer, has developed structures optimized to big companies, big contracts, and big oversight. This drives up transaction costs for small businesses at every stage: initial discovery of product needs and specifications by the government buyer, dialogue and interface between the government buyer and the startup seller, identifying appropriate contracting vehicles for the sale (authorized frameworks, methods, and appropriate contacts/departments), interface while implementing a contract with a prime (overhead contractor), and ultimately delivering the product or service to the government buyer.

Many startups assess the time, effort, and financial cost at each juncture to be too high, and instead choose to opt-out of working with the government to pursue opportunities with lower barriers to entry.

  1. Misconceptions regarding intellectual property: Another barrier is the perceived danger to their intellectual property (IP) assets. Startups, or their angel investors and venture capitalists, commonly fear that government collaborations will result in a new product to which they have limited rights, or they fear that the rights to their main marketable product may be, in some part, transferred to the government. Government's primary goal is to seek a private partner that possesses the necessary expertise to modify an existing technology (or, sometimes, create an entirely new technology) that fits an agency's needs. However, agencies need to create a clear line of communication about their IP and contractual policies with their private partners, whether this means providing small businesses with a very clear and exhaustive FAQ webpage (e.g., the Department of Energy's (DOE) Small Business Voucher pilot program) or providing direct access to trained representatives or legal teams (e.g., the NASA patent portfolio). [Ansari, S., Krieger, B., and Siboni, R., "Buying What Works Memo," Unpublished, August 25, 2016.]

  2. Maintaining a culture of innovation: Startups and often small businesses exist in a culture where they are willing to take risk and are used to developing quick partnerships. Government, on the other hand, has little to no tolerance for failure, and operates under the guidance of policies and procedures specifically to minimize agility, discouraging modern vendors from working with government (Source: The White House, "Exit Memo: Office of Management and Budget," January 5, 2017).


Here are some case studies of agency-led approaches to engage startups and small business:

Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)

SBIR is a highly-competitive program that encourages domestic small businesses to engage in federal research/research and development (R/R&D) that has the potential for commercialization. Through a competitive awards-based program, SBIR enables small businesses to explore their technological potential and provides the incentive to profit from its commercialization.

DOE Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program

The goal of the Lab-Embedded Entrepreneurship Program at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is to embed innovators and aspiring entrepreneurs within the national laboratories to perform applied research and development (R&D) with the express goal of launching advanced energy businesses under world-class mentorship.

DOE Small Business Vouchers Pilot Program

To efficiently execute the Small Business Vouchers (SBV) Pilot Program, the DOE streamlined the process of collaborating with small businesses and national laboratories by developing a standard legal agreement for research and development.

DHS EMERGE Accelerator Program

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched the EMERGE Accelerator to find emerging commercial technology that is adaptable for homeland security. EMERGE attracts entrepreneurs in the wearable technologies field (e.g., body-worn electronics, sensors).

DHS Silicon Valley Office

In early 2016, the Science and Technology Directorate of DHS announced the opening of a DHS Silicon Valley office. Its primary goal to create a pipeline for nontraditional partners who may have access to Silicon Valley's fast-paced innovation network of Silicon Valley to work with the federal government.

NASA Patent Portfolio/ Software Catalog

NASA has enjoyed great success in attracting small businesses for technology-based partnerships. NASA has published consumer-friendly, easy-to-use websites that list all available NASA technologies, including licensable patents, software, and public domain technologies.


Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Common Fund, the Stimulating Peripheral Activities to Relieve Conditions (SPARC) program is designed to bring together government and individuals, industry, foreign, small business, and non-profit (nontraditional) partners to improve neuromodulation therapies by uncovering the underlying neuroanatomy and biological mechanisms of action governing nerve-organ interactions. The SPARC program is one of three programs at NIH that are currently using NIH's Other Transaction (OT) Authority, which allows the NIH to streamline the process of awarding federal funds and better target organizations and individuals.


As shown in the examples above, there are several innovative strategies including new innovative contracting models that increase accessibility to these entrepreneurs, and reduce the complexity and cost of doing business with the government.

Lessons Learned

Here are some lessons learned from agencies who have worked with startups and small businesses:

  • Decentralize trust and empower personnel lower down the chain of command: Contracting Officers (COs) are usually excluded from conversations about fulfilling the agency's mission. As a result, they award contracts to larger, more established companies. One lesson learned is to empower COs with the information they need to take risks on awarding contracts to companies that are the most effective and have demonstrated capabilities regardless of the company's size.

  • Follow the law instead of tradition: One of the first steps to streamlining procurement and working with small companies is to distinguish self-imposed recommendations from actual regulation. The HHS Buyer's Club recognizes this and seeks to find innovative strategies to find new ways to use old regulations and laws, rather than assume the laws are essentially wrong. As new practices are validated, they can first be published internally through informational webinars and then circulated more widely through training courses offered by entities like the Federal Acquisition Institute.
  • Express needs in the form of problems / outcomes instead of solutions / requirements: The usual process of procurement is to define the solicitation by the solution requested and the related requirements. By design, the wording is typically narrow so only a handful of suppliers are eligible. Typically, there is a bias against small businesses.

If instead solicitations specify the problems to be solved and the outcomes expected, smaller companies have room to be creative and will not be immediately disqualified. Additionally, small companies will see that the government sees them as valuable partners and may be more willing to apply.

  • Start small, gain quick wins, and scale fast:** Any change takes time and resources. The same Agile and Lean Startup perspectives from the world of entrepreneurship can be applied to making changes to government procurement. Many small pilots can try out new ideas, and quick wins can help convince any skeptics. The pilots that succeed can then be scaled appropriately.

Actions and Considerations

Consider these tactical actions and recommendations when engaging with startups and small businesses:

Designate a small business representative

In addition to widely disseminating new opportunities, agencies that wish to engage innovative small businesses should designate a representative. Not all agencies will have the resources to create a new position dedicated to private-sector outreach, but existing employees may be assigned duties that include direct contact with incubators and accelerators.

Address intellectual property (IP) concerns through clear communication

Consider providing specific methods for partners to ask questions and receive answers about legal considerations. One option is to designate an individual with legal knowledge to serve as an IP liaison with new private partners, and to publish that person's contact information in a readily accessible web space. This increases the likelihood that small business with legal concerns will get their questions quickly and efficiently, therefore increasing much needed trust in prospective government partners.

GSA IT Schedule 70 "Making It Easier"

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) launched Making It Easier (MIE) in April 2016 for IT Schedule 70 to accelerate and streamline procurement. IT Schedule 70 is the largest IT acquisition vehicle in the U.S. government, and MIE is an effort to meet the speed of IT and supply government purchasers with the most innovative solutions. MIE includes the IT Schedule 70 Roadmap that explains the contracting process in plain language and provides a standardized welcome package for new contractors.

The GSA FASt Lane initiative reduces the processing time of contract modifications and new offers, provides the Startup Springboard to get companies less than 2 years old on the schedule, and provides a contracting forecast tool. Similar progress in other areas is possible by dedicating resources and time to streamlining processes. For more information, contact FAStlane@gsa.gov.

Create workable procurement pipelines

Despite the procurement pipeline challenges, at least one widely workable alignment exists for research and prototyping projects for which Other Transaction (OT) Authorities or Blanket Purchase Agreements (BPA) are appropriate. See the Innovation and Acquisitions and Procurement section for more information.

Use Innovative Acquisitions and Procurement Methods

Many new procurement methods foster a better relationship between the government and startups/small businesses:

  • Challenge-based acquisitions are a try before you buy approach. They provide for the small-scale introduction of innovative and cost-saving technologies into existing acquisition programs through challenge proposals. With a challenge-based acquisition, an agency can motivate private-sector entities to develop and demonstrate their solutions in real-world conditions so an agency can choose a source to award contracts or task orders for more testing, refinement, or production.
  • Competitive milestone-based payments: Competitive milestone-based contracts are a useful tool for attracting businesses with innovative approaches to well-defined, multi-component problems. It promotes competition among a stable pool of selected offerors across a series of clear, technically feasible milestones, with payment withheld until the associated, agreed-upon milestone is completed.
  • Incentive prizes: This contracting model promotes innovation by offering a reward upon completion of a specific objective task. Prizes enable the federal government to pay only for success, establish an ambitious goal, and reach beyond the usual suspects to increase the number of minds tackling a problem without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed. Many well-known incentive prizes have focused on catalyzing technology R&D, though prize administrators are increasingly using incentive prizes to drive behavior change, market adoption of existing solutions and interventions, and progress in areas of social policy such as health, energy use, and education. See Challenge.gov for a listing of challenge and prize competitions.
  • Non-binding purchase agreements: Non-binding commitments to purchase products can create demand for new, more effective solutions where market requirements remain unmet. Frequently developed in partnership between federal and private-sector partners, commitments can catalyze the voluntary market introduction of cost-effective solutions that advance everyone's best interests. Non-binding purchase commitments work best when there is both a clearly defined performance specification and a strong expression of interest from potential buyers.
  • Rapid technology prototyping: A rapid technology prototyping contract is an innovative contracting model that consists of multiple, small, fast, and cheap acquisitions to test innovative technologies. They may be used to rapidly and inexpensively identify whether cutting-edge, unproven, but potentially transformative technologies are viable options for an agency's particular requirements.
  • Staged contracts: Staged contracts offer agencies a tool to solicit proposals widely across the private sector—from established contractors to entrepreneurs—and rapidly assess them. A staged contract is an innovative contracting model that follows a three-phase evaluation process consisting of a short concept paper, invite-only full proposal, and subsequent year pilot evaluation. Staged contracts may be used to rapidly and cheaply assess many existing or prototype private-sector technologies.

Read more on why, when, and how to deploy these approaches in "Innovative Contracting Case Studies."

Use existing training resources to build capacity

The Defense Acquisition University and Federal Acquisition Institute have some courses aimed toward including small businesses and implementing agile practices. The procurement lessons learned should be shared, when applicable, through these platforms to maximize impact. Civilian contracting officers are required to take 40 hours of training every two years; encouraging staff to choose training on innovative contracting models can enhance agency capacity to engage a wider range of partners. This training model could be replicated to provide experiential learning on other innovative contracting models.


Additional Resources

For Startups

Prizes and Challenges

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“A good Government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of Government, which is the happiness of the People; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” James Madison, The Federalist Papers

Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Prizes and challenges are an approach to federal contracting that promotes innovation by offering a monetary or non-monetary reward upon completing a specific objective or task (i.e., a challenge) (Source: The White House “Innovative Contracting Case Studies,” August 2014).

Prize competitions are a proven way to increase innovation for the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. Incentivized, open competition is a standard tool in many agencies’ toolboxes for delivering more cost-effective and efficient services, and advancing agencies’ core missions.

Using prizes can provide benefits for federal agencies that use them by

  • Enabling the Federal government to direct resources to projects with a successful outcome.

  • Establishing an ambitious goal by laying out a challenge for prize seekers.

  • Helping agencies extend their reach to new participants.

  • Increasing the number of people working on a problem without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed.

  • Bringing out-of-discipline perspectives to bear.

To date, agencies have sponsored more than 740 public-sector prize competitions on Challenge.gov, a website where tens of thousands of entrepreneurs and citizen problem solvers have participated and won over $250 million in prizes (Source: The White House, “A Strategy for American Innovation,” October 2015).


National Institute of Justice (NIJ): Ultra High-Speed Apps Under the general authorizing statute to conduct research and 28 USC Section 530C, NIJ launched the Ultra High Speed App Challenge to source new solutions to improve public safety applications. NIJ offered a $150,000 prize purse, and four winning entries provided real-time and individually tailored information to practitioners in rapidly evolving emergency situations.

NIJ’s Approach

  • The developers created a multidisciplinary team that included IT, finance, communications, and justice programs personnel.
  • Contestants were required to submit a working prototype of the software and corresponding apps. All submissions were required to demonstrate the need for the app; articulate the way in which the app would improve criminal justice effectiveness and/or efficiency; specify the public access databases used to support the app and the proposed method of acquiring and updating these data; and identify appropriate and obtainable impact measures.
  • NIJ spread the word through press releases and social media content while also performing targeted outreach at relevant conferences and events.

Learn More: NIJ Ultra High Speed App Challenge.


How can we create and run prizes and challenges?

When considering prizes and challenges, agencies should have a clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish with a prize, and how the prize will help them achieve that goal. A prize should not be an end in itself, but one tactic within a broader strategy for encouraging and shaping private innovation and change. Agencies should plan appropriately for all stages of prize development and, where permissible, consider partnering with other entities that might administer, support, or market the prize.

There are five distinct phases of tasks required to successfully run a challenge:

  1. Prepare
  2. Develop
  3. Conduct
  4. Award
  5. Transition

Phase 1: Prepare

  • Estimate your necessary resources and partnerships.
  • Determine if a challenge is the best tool for addressing your goals.
  • Identify your goals and desired outcomes.

Phase 2: Develop

  • Determine the prize competition structure and implementation timeline.
  • Work with internal groups to establish eligibility and submission requirements, terms and conditions, and judging criteria.
  • Connect with your communications team to outline your announcement and ongoing outreach strategy to engage contestants who can solve the problem.

Phase 3: Conduct

  • Roll out your communications plan, accept solutions, and interact with contestants to continue to generate interest and enthusiasm to solve the problem.
  • As submissions close, begin to evaluate entries, select winners, and verify winner eligibility.

Phase 4: Award

  • Determine the appropriate channels for announcing your winner(s).
  • Work with internal teams to expedite payment and document your processes.
  • Explore important nonmonetary incentives that reach all participants — regardless of winner status — such as detailed feedback, recognition, and information on follow-on funding opportunities.

Phase 5: Transition

  • Analyze and document the results, outcomes, and impact of your incentivized competition.
  • Evaluate avenues for remaining engaged with contestants as well as next steps for high-potential solutions, whether moving them into an innovation “accelerator” to quickly develop their prize solutions or exploring other channels for moving prize solutions to procurement.

Actions and Considerations

Setting up and running a challenge require flexibility. Develop a challenge that works best for your agency and your challenge goals.

  • Define the problem to solve and establish clear goals. Do not run a challenge if you don’t have a problem to solve.
  • Identify and engage appropriate stakeholders early.
  • Determine how you will fund the challenge.
  • Get leadership support and build your agency’s challenge team.
  • Prepare a communication plan before launching the challenge.
  • Sign up for an OMB Max login to use Challenge.gov.


  • S.3084 - American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, 114th Congress, December 2016. This stipulates that ‘Federal agencies may use crowdsourcing and voluntary, collaborative citizen science to advance their missions.

  • The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act provides all Federal agencies broad authority to conduct prize competitions as called for by the President in the Strategy for American Innovation. The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act updated important parts of this authority. All agencies and programs should be aware of the flexibilities offered by the COMPETES Act prize authority to source solutions from U.S. innovators. Under the Act, agencies have authority to establish ambitious prizes to advance national priorities:
    • Scope: The Act authorizes agencies to conduct any prize competition that will “stimulate innovation that has the potential to advance the mission of the respective agency.”
    • Size: Agencies can offer up to a $50 million prize without further consultation with Congress.
    • Multi-Sector Partnerships: The Act allows agencies to partner broadly with other government entities and the private sector, as well as solicit and accept philanthropic and private sector funds to support a prize purse or the competition’s design and administration. (For more information on the prize authority in the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, please see the Fact Sheet and Frequently Asked Questions memorandum.)
  • Section 24 of The Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980, 15 U.S.C. §3719, as enacted by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, permits any agency head to “carry out a program to award prizes competitively to stimulate innovation that has the potential to advance the mission of the respective agency” (§24(b)). Section 24 authorizes agencies to use both private sector and Federal appropriated funds in order to design prizes, administer prizes, and offer monetary awards for prize competitions.
  • Agencies can conduct prizes under other authorities, such as agency-specific authorities (such as those that apply to DOD, DOE, and NASA); procurement authority such as that provided by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR); authority to award grants, participate in cooperative agreements, or both; and authority related to “necessary expense” doctrine, among others. The General Service Administration has a contract vehicle (Schedule 541 4G) to decrease the amount of time required for agencies to tap into private-sector expertise that is critical to early success.

Additional Resources

Public Engagement

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"For effective change in a complex system, you need to find ways to constructively involve everyone who is impacted. This is because in a complex environment if you are impacted, you exert influence."

Seth Kahan, "The Power to Convene and Set Context"

Purpose and Outcomes

Purpose: Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs or P3s) and aligned commitments are important tools for engaging the public to help the government solve societal challenges through formal and informal agreements.

Public-private partnerships are formal joint ventures between the federal government and outside entities in order to address public-sector problems. PPPs effectively address a wide range of challenges such as:

  • creating and improving infrastructure
  • improving public health
  • creating desired economic impacts

They work best when all partners benefit, and incentive structures and expectations are set from an early stage to help mobilize market forces on an issue or in a region that had a market failure.

An aligned commitment is a specific type of collaboration between the federal government and outside entities. Unlike formal PPPs, calls-to-action and convenings (meetings) match executive action to specific commitments from public and private sectors to create societal advancements and target specific issues like creating U.S. jobs and solving the global refugee crisis.

The federal government, particularly the White House, is uniquely positioned to assemble multiple stakeholders, declare inspiring calls to action on issues at significant turning points, and elevate an issue's national profile from talk to action. Through high-level engagement, public officials can match executive action to specific private-sector commitments.


Many agencies use PPPs and aligned commitments to solve challenges:

  • 100Kin10 is solving the challenge of giving children a great education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by adding more than 100,000 more STEM teachers to America's classrooms by 2021.

  • BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiativeseeks to deepen understanding of the inner workings of the human mind and to improve how we treat, prevent, and cure disorders of the brain. Launched in 2013, the participants include federal government agencies, private industry leaders, philanthropists, nonprofit organizations, foundations, and academic institutions whose research has resulted in finding nearly 100 previously unknown areas of the brain and publishing a new map of the brain.

  • Global Alliance on Clean Cook Stoves (GACC) aims to create a global market for clean and efficient household cooking and fuel solutions. Launched in 2010, GACC has 19 founding partners from the public, private, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sectors. These partners include five federal agencies, five government partners, four private foundations/companies, and six United Nations (UN) agencies.

  • Global Development Alliances (GDA) models public-private partnerships at the S. Agency for International Development (USAID), helping to improve the social and economic conditions in developing countries and deepen USAID's development impact.


Creating Successful Public-Private Partnerships

PPPs require a common agenda with clear goals and a structure for engagement in order to succeed and sustain themselves. While the partnership may use traditionally binding legal agreements, the partnership itself may not be legally binding. Work must be based on trust, relationships, and the collaborative power of multi-sector participation.

Successful P3s require:

  • Policies, processes and tools that support federal efforts to form and sustain PPPs
  • A legal framework to establish and enforce long-term PPPs agreements
  • Alternative financing mechanisms/innovative procurement to work towards sustainability for partnership, whether within the federal government or independently managed
  • Skills to manage and oversee projects and partnerships.

Call for Actions and Convenings for Aligning Commitments

External organizations respond to the White House's call to action by organically building their own coalitions to make financial and in-kind commitments. These commitments align with national priorities through well-structured convening (or meetings). Benefits of convenings include:

  • Multidisciplinary approaches can help tackle our thorniest problems. Collaborative efforts focus on how to reach scale and scope to solve the problem while individual participants focus on their domain expertise and contributions.

  • Unexpected coalitions can generate innovative solutions. Commitments mobilize stakeholders to align, act, and influence their networks to create new products and services, and develop future directions.

  • High-visibility commitment spurs public engagement and jumpstarts new solutions. Stakeholders respond from a deep sense of civic responsibility; being directly asked to advance the public good appeals powerfully.

  • Meetings complements concurrent efforts in the legislative process. External collaboration enables policymakers to focus on areas where legislation is essential.

  • Galvanize more resources towards shared challenges. A measure of successful collaboration between the public and private sectors is whether the effort delivered more resources for solving a shared challenge by changing private-sector practices.

Actions and Considerations

Steps for Initiating and Deploying P3s

Designing a P3 arrangement is a continual process. Sustained success relies on building in feedback loops from start to finish.

There are seven key steps that the sponsoring agency should undertake when initiating and deploying PPPs.

Step 1: Scoping

Decide and define the issues, needs, goals, and objectives and revise them each time a new partner is approached by any member of the central partnership.

Step 2: Partner Identification: Internal and External Champions

Conduct internal mapping to identify projects that have P3 potential early in the planning process to consider how they may fit into long-term performance objectives and budget constraints. Identify and avoid any conflicts of interest by identifying any existing connections with potential partners. Engage potential external partners through public convenings to create a common understanding of the goals and objectives that all participants can work towards.

Step 3: Engagement

Establish a coalition of collaborators interested in solving a problem, some of whom may be brought in early to help with implementing and understanding the framework. Collaboration begins after the legal parameters are understood and the agency has determined the level of domain of interest in employing the P3. Set priorities for engagement with a call to action by a high-level government official highlighting the urgency of solving a specific public issue. Bring together stakeholders to set common agenda, define measurable goals and timelines, and begin allocating workflow to partners based on expertise.

Step 4: Definition and Formation

Understand the statutory and policy framework that the government entity (federal, state, or local) is operating under determines the P3 arrangements allowed for project selection, funding, management, and other policies. Agencies may also establish specific policies to guide P3 project development and involve general counsel and contracting experts in developing the initial partnership framework.

Conduct procurement for P3s by allowing greater flexibility to allow for innovation by the bidders and provide more room to negotiate with multiple stakeholders. Government officials should work directly with contracting and procurement officials to ensure the P3 framework supports the partnership's goals. The agency may want experienced financial, legal and technical advisors to help assess the financial quality of the bid, determine the technical expertise of the bidders, and negotiate with the private partner.

Step 5: Implementation

Build a robust strategy. It should improve visibility of the public-private partnership. It should also enhance the networks of partners, media, and peers into the plan and increase the sponsoring agency's participation. The agency must manage relationships and conduct continuous monitoring and oversight to ensure that it achieves the performance standards established in the partnership agreement.

Step 6: Performance Measurement

Include metrics to measure both tangible and intangible outcomes. Metrics for intangibles may have to be contextual, such as proxy indicators, anecdotal evidence, and storytelling. Properly define objectives and intended results to develop meaningful performance measures.

Step 7: Renewal and Closure

Capture overall success of the partnership through a two-fold approach: measuring the process and measuring the impact over time. Test the partnership's reliability and viability to determine if it creates impact for the beneficiaries and whether the project should be renewed.

Steps for Announcing and Gathering Public and Private Commitments

Agencies must inform external organizations about the opportunity to make commitments by:

  • Issue a call for action: Issue through a speech or op-ed by senior leadership. Use blog posts that highlight how organizations can get involved and where they should submit their commitments through online platforms or e-mail addresses.

  • Organize a workshop: Use brainstorming sessions to generate ideas for specific commitments. Invite senior administration officials to convey serious intent.

  • Leverage associations or professional societies: Inform and mobilize association and professional society members, particularly if they have entrepreneurial and highly motivated staff.

  • Schedule an event: Create a sense of urgency through a deadline.
  • Amplify momentum: Identify a few organizations that are willing to act in order to create momentum.
  • Highlight past commitments: Show people and organizations relevant examples of past commitments.

Structure the convening process to keep the meetings focused on the defined outcomes and processes.

  • Select the problem by clearly defining concrete pieces of high-priority challenges. Use backwards mapping to identify and segment dimensions of the policy challenge.
  • Be open to co-creating the solution context. Achieve a clear purpose centered on outcome-driven goals, but empower partners to adapt and co-create the collective mission and specific responses.
  • Structure convenings around action. Convey an explicit expectation that participants will produce deliverables or commitments for their specific follow-on actions and investments.
  • Build trust.
  • Focus on realizing the shared outcome.
  • Include the public. Create a platform where citizens can also contribute new ideas. Get input through digital engagement tools


P3 Legislation

  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
    • Act authorized $126 billion for infrastructure projects, some of which have evolved into public-partnerships by using funding to encourage private-sector investment and involvement.
  • Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009
    • Act reauthorized and expanded national service programs administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), establishing new parameters of engagement with nonprofits, community-based organizations, and foundations.

P3 Policy Guidance

  • Alissa Ardito, "Public-Private Partnerships Draft Report," Administrative Conference of the United States, September 7, 2016.
    • Established best practices for agencies including creating offices for strategic partnerships and suggested that the administration issue an Executive Order regarding Public-Private Partnerships.
  • U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations, and Bilateral International Development, "Public-Private Partnerships in Foreign Aid: Leveraging Taxpayer Dollars for Greater Impact and Relevance," July 12, 2016
    • Testimony of Daniel F. Runde, Chair and Director, Project on Prosperity and Development, CSIS) communicating the United States' role in development and the dynamic atmosphere of international development.
  • U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, "Public Private Partnerships: Balancing the needs of the public and private sector to finance the nation's infrastructure," September 14, 2017.
    • Panel on Public-Private Partnerships established in January 2014 to examine the current state of public-private partnerships (P3s) across all modes of transportation, economic development, public buildings, water, and maritime infrastructure and equipment, and make recommendations for how to balance the needs of the public and private sectors when considering, developing, and implementing P3 projects to finance the nation's infrastructure.

Aligned commitments are not bound by the same legal considerations required by more formal public-private partnerships because they are not formalized partnerships. However, they are consistent with recent efforts to expand public and civil society participation and to create more open, participatory, and collaborative government.

Three action plans from the Open Government Partnership promote transparency and accountability in the federal government:

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