Government’s Idea of Innovation? A Crowdsourcing Web Site is all well and good, with big cash prizes for innovation, but we’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing before. Is this the best that America’s CIO can come up with?


Today the Obama administration formally launched, a tool that enables government agencies to solicit ideas from the public to solve issues plaguing the country. Announced by U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra at the Gov 2.0 conference, is essentially a digital age-version of JFK’s “ask not” plea–with cash prizes.

Unveiling a crowdsourcing initiative at a summit created to demonstrate the most advanced marriages of technology and government? Yawn.

Sure, it’s great to see the public sector harnessing the potential of its citizenry. And this same model worked for the X Prize, which help spur the development of a low-cost, reusable spacecraft with a $10 million incentive. And is offering similar rewards: $10 million from the Department of Energy for a 100 mile-per-gallon vehicle; $15 million for a replacement for the common light bulb; and $1.65 million for an aircraft that can fly 200 miles using 1 gallon of gas per occupant.

“This is a fundamental shift in power,” Kundra told his audience. “This engages the American people as co-creators in solving some of the toughest problems this country faces.”

But we’ve seen these “innovations” before. IdeaScale, for example, lets the public submit and vote on ideas for anything from state budgets to health care and priorities. The Princeton-developed All Our Ideas helps organizations collect and rank ideas more effectively. Innocentive offers cash prizes to problem solvers. Any number of these platforms already exist, and the idea of crowdsourcing has been around for years. (Remember: Netflix launched its $1 million challenge, which sought improvements to its movie recommendation technology, as early as 2006.) So why should we applaud the government for creating this “new” site?

Kundra is the country’s first ever Chief Information Officer. He’s part of a young, social-media savvy administration. Many observers expected this meant the government would start keeping pace with the private sector. Instead, we got a sleek, expensive Web site with $1.3 trillion in fact-checking problems ( and now an X Prize clone. Ask not what your government can do for originality online, because we haven’t seen it yet.

About the author

Austin Carr writes about design and technology for Fast Company magazine.