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Prizes, Challenges and Government Innovation: The Trimtab Solution?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, April 30 2010

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary -- the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there's a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.

It's a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it's going right by you, that it's left you altogether. But if you're doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.

So I said, call me Trim Tab.
--Buckminster Fuller, Playboy, February 1972

A few years ago, Beth Noveck, Susan Crawford and David Johnson started an informal evening discussion group in New York City, where they were all living. The three were all teaching and working at the intersection of the internet and social innovation, and the group's meetings functioned like an informal salon where regulars and visitors shared current projects and passions. I went a few times, once to hear about the Cornell Law Project's pathbreaking work to open up law records online, once to hear Susan share her plans for OneWebDay (sort of Earth Day for the web), and once to introduce the then-just-born Sunlight Foundation to Beth, Susan, David and their eclectic circle of friends.

They jokingly called the group the "Trimtab Conspiracy," in honor of Bucky Fuller's image of the little rudder on a boat that can turn the whole ship. I was reminded of Trimtab today, as I attended an all-day meeting at HUD organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Case Foundation on "Promoting Innovation: Prizes, Challenges and Open Grantmaking." Some 200 people representing more than 30 government departments and agencies were in attendance to hear from and brainstorm with some of the world's most successful proponents of disruptive, transformational approaches to public and private innovation. The fact that Noveck, author of "Wiki Government" and White House deputy CTO for open government, was one of the keynote speakers at the meeting, wasn't the only reason Trimtab came to mind.

As the day unfolded, it because very clear that one little agency, OSTP, was keen on spreading the use of one deceptively simple but sophisticated little tool--challenge prizes--to foster a fundamental change in how government works. Towards that end, they gathered pioneers like Peter Diamandis, the chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation; Rob MeEwen, the founder of GoldCorp (which open-sourced 50 years worth of proprietary geology records to get the public's help in finding its next big gold strike); and Peter Lee of DARPA's Transformational Convergence Technology Office (who ran the recent "Red Balloon" Network Challenge contest), who each shared inspirational examples from their own work on how open contests have generated massive investments of private and civic resources and original responses to problems. "We want to launch a social movement within government around using prizes and challenges," said Thomas Kalil, the deputy science advisor at OSTP>

As Jean Case, co-founder of Case Foundation, asked at the opening of the day: "Why now?" She answered he own question by saying, "There has been a real drive toward more transparency in government, and reducing the bureaucracy, taking advantage of web 2.0 technologies to bring citizens closer to their government. Could this be the moment when citizens get more involved in their government?" It made sense for Case to be a co-convenor of the event, given its ongoing efforts to demonstrate the potential in contests, crowdsourcing and open grantmaking.

But while this may be the moment to involve citizens in a new way with government, given the tectonic shifts in participation that are underway, it's not clear that everyone in government is ready to engage with citizens. McEwen, of Goldcorp, told a story of how he held a meeting with his staff and asked the youngest person in the room to share an idea that had been shot down by his bosses, who were also in the room. People in the HUD auditorium tittered nervously. The key to making a prize contest work, he told the audience was to “define a fundamental assumption that is never questioned by the people within the organization.” More nervous looks. Someone later stood up to ask the panelists how to advance a public-facing contest when people inside their agency might be opposed to it; again, the audience murmured knowingly.

Lee, from DARPA, gave the gutsiest and most helpful talk, in my opinion. Doing the Network Challenge, he said, made him feel "exposed and scared." A slide he projected added, “Open innovation is, um, open. Sometimes uncomfortably so." He also told the audience that this DARPA project was a bit of a risk. "We didn’t know what the outcome would be. Five days before game day we only had a few hundred participants, and then John Markoff put it on the front page of the Times." Ultimately more than 4000 teams signed up, including a number of overseas competitors. Lee's most importance advice: "You need a willingness to fail, and not know the outcome in the advance."

Can government agencies let themselves fail? Will we let them try? Not every contest will produce a human genome map or an X-Prize effect. The pay-offs may be more mundane, like the dozens of working apps and the vibrant volunteer developer community that has been fostered by contests like DC's Apps for Democracy and Sunlight's Apps for America. (Speaking of which, get your designer friends to do something for Design for America.) But in general, the gains from enabling a culture of open challenges, outsider innovation and public participation are going to be huge. Noveck and her colleagues at OSTP may have found their trim tab.