Next month, the federal government will launch a new .gov website with a big idea behind it and high hopes that there will be big ideas generated within it. Challenge.gov is the latest effort in the evolution of collaborative innovation in open government. Should the approach succeed, challenges and contests have the potential to leverage the collective expertise of citizens, just as apps contests have been used to drive innovation in D.C. and beyond.

In August, senior government officials and private sector enjoyed a preview of Challenge.gov at the Newseum at the second annual Fedscoop forum on reducing the cost of government. Challenge.gov is already live to federal employees for exploration and contribution. The next step for the site, where the Americans are invited to share, vote and contribute ideas, is likely to happen this September, potentially as soon as next week at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, when federal CIO Vivek Kundra and U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra speak about closing the innovation gap.

In the interview below, Bev Godwin and Brandon Kessler explain what Challenge.gov is and what it might do. Godwin is director of new media and citizen engagement at U.S. General Services Administration. Kessler is the founder of ChallengePost, the platform that Challenge.gov is built upon.

ChallengePost is also the foundation for First Lady Michelle Obama's Apps For Healthy Kids contest site. As Kessler points out, that contest now has over 40,000 supporters and around 100 apps that Kessler estimated are worth over $5 million dollars, in exchange for $60k in prizes. Aggregating challenges at Challenge.gov could generate online activity, like eBay did for auctions or YouTube for video, said Kessler.

Does building Challenge.gov make sense? "It goes to the question of how visible [networks like these] are," said Dr. Jeffrey Davis, director of space life sciences at NASA. "The more networked they are, the more visibility there is. It's important to have platforms interconnected."

Another issue is whether people are aware of challenges or contest, or can find them through search. "Finding challenges is very difficult, said Dean Halstead, collaborative visualization architect for government at Microsoft Federal. If you search for 'health challenge,' you don't find much on Twitter or Google. Regardless of how much you centralize, the word won't get out. You need multiple mechanisms. Challenge.gov is just the first of many steps."

What are Challenges Useful For?

Crowdsourcing has been receiving high-level attention in D.C. in recent years as case studies in the private sector accumulate. A recent Senate hearing featured testimony on the potential of crowdsourcing and other technical innovation, like transparency and data mining to reduce fraud.

"The power of crowdsourcing a solution should never be underestimated," said Michael Donovan, chief technologist for strategic capabilities at HP Enterprise Services. "If people can start to see solutions, then a community can help and be part of the solution. It's not government or companies doing something to you - you're part of the solution that contributed to that end result. At the end of the day, you feel ownership."

There are some challenges with challenges, however, in how they are architected, implemented and managed. "How do you put a value on something that's being invented?" asked Godwin, pointing to the "L Prize" competition to invent a better lightbulb sponsored by the Department of Energy.

As she observed, to date only DARPA, NASA and the Department of Energy have been cleared to run challenges, although other agencies will follow. That ability was made substantially easier thanks to a memo issued by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy earlier this year that provided "Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government." [PDF]

To make a challenge work, "You need to go back to portfolio mapping," said Davis. "You need to fit the challenge to a category." Davis suggested analyzing whether a challenge was something that fit internal expertise. If not, then expose that to the public, and build consortia. "If you do that process first, you can analyze problems first," he said.

Whether contests can improve government performance (or not) has come under criticism from members of Congress and a public concerned about the use of taxpayer funds.

When asked about results by Godwin, Davis noted that even if government agencies leverage internal resources, there will always be gaps in the portfolio. "The speed and relative costs of the challenges are effective," he said. "TopCoder was open for 10 days. Most are open for 60 days. Those are fast results, certainly more so that standard procurement for a given problem."

After portfolio mapping, said Davis, the "hardest part is getting acceptance of the tool. We did pilot projects and now have results that are the best source of internal education we might have."

The kind of output a given challenge requires also matters. When it comes to data analysis - using, for instance, Data.gov or data catalogs - apps are more common, said Kessler. For experiences and ideas, video are more common, like the Social Security open government contest. "Challenges could be used to replace certain kinds of procurement," said Kessler, pointing to logo or website design, naming an initiative or even a certain space station module.

Being specific about what the crowdsourcer is asking is also important, as NYU professor Clay Shirky's talk on redefining politics at PDF 2010 highlighted. His analysis of how Change.gov could have used crowdsourcing more effectively by categorizing submissions is of particular relevance.

Can Contests and Crowds Lead to Better Policy?

After some of these contests close the next questions will often not be driven by legal or technological challenges. Instead, the results will have to be used to drive acquisition, civic empowerment or even more data-driven policy.

"How can we challenge the public not just to drive awareness but drive action?" asked Halstead, pointing to the Apps For Climate Change a Canadian government contest. "Inside Microsoft, we have 'Think Week,' where we propose and think about different problems, solutions and how to solve them, which we submit to the community at large," said Halstead.

Halstead also noted that Microsoft has been working with Republicans in the House on AmericaSpeakingOut.com, which was built on the TownHall platform. To date, said Halstead, over 500,000 people have given feedback on how they think the country could be improved. In other words, trying to crowdsource feedback for contests, challenges and policy is an experiment that's being carried out on both sides of the aisle.

The framers of the United States constitution built republican ideals of representative government into the nation's laws - its operating system, as Carl Malamud has put it - for good reason. What even Jefferson and Hamilton never anticipated was the possibility of real-time online platforms that allow engaged citizens to submit and vote upon ideas. Whether such systems bring better government in the 21st Century may be the greatest challenge that the launch of Challenge.gov will answer.

Guest author Alexander B. Howard (@digiphile) will be reporting live from the upcoming Gov2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C., on September 7-8.