GEAR Center Challenge
Scale new solutions to boldly tackle government's most complex management challenges.
BackgroundThe federal government is exploring how to better connect to the public, academia, and private industry to solve federal management challenges. One potential path in that pursuit is through a Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center that uses applied research to improve mission delivery, citizen services, and stewardship of public resources, as proposed in Delivering Government Solutions for the 21st Century: Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations.
Over the summer of 2019, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ran a GEAR Center prize competition on Challenge.gov. The competition challenged problem solvers from the public, academia, and industry to build cross-sector, multidisciplinary teams to demonstrate the potential of the GEAR Center .Teams described how they would tackle challenges facing the government as outlined in the President's Management Agenda (PMA).
GoalsThe challenge's goal was to test the GEAR Center model before investing further. Another goal was to see how the Center could help solve the federal government's current and future challenges.
GSA and OMB ran a successful prize competition on Challenge.gov. Leaders from across federal agencies acted as judges, with GSA also tapping subject-matter experts (SMEs) from Cross-Agency Priority (CAP) Goal teams and other government-wide initiatives.
Forty-nine eligible GEAR Center project proposals came in from solver teams representing:
- small businesses
- large firms
- academic partnerships
- non-profit organizations
- private citizens
Proposed projects targeted a wide range of PMA topics including:
- customer experience
- moving innovations from lab to market
- payments processing
- IT modernization
- security clearance reform
After an intense three-phase evaluation process, three grand-prize winners and five honorable mentions were selected. The grand-prize winners each received $300,000. There were no cash awards for the honorable mentions.
Cybersecurity Workforce Collaboration - Under this solution, a federal neurodiversity cyber workforce will be established to focus on training a particular federal agency to identify, hire, onboard, train, support, and retain neurodiverse individuals for cyber positions. This pilot program will be facilitated by winning team members including George Mason University, Mercyhurst University, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Maryland, Drexel University, SAP, Specialisterne, DXC Dandelion Program, and the MITRE Corporation.
Data for Impact - Currently, data on federally funded workforce, education, and human services programs are too often held in silos that prevent local, state, and federal agencies from assessing the true impact of their joint service delivery. This solution, a collaboration between SkillSource Group and Third Sector Capital Partners, Inc., strives to improve government use of administrative data to measure impact. This team will pilot an approach to integrate currently disparate data that builds on existing state data integration efforts. The team will use many administrative data sources to measure the impact of Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) services for Virginia Opportunity Youth with past involvement with the child welfare and/or criminal justice systems.
Data and Evidence for Government and Academic Impact - This project aims to help 250 federal practitioners in Kansas City by customizing an existing training curriculum and recommending how to replicate and scale it in other regions. This collaboration focuses on improving the use of evidence and data by the public sector workforce among the Johns Hopkins University Centers for Civic Impact, and Volcker Alliance's Government-to-University Initiative, and the Mid-America Regional Council.
Unlocking the Value of Government Data - Deloitte, Google, University of Maryland, and Datawheel collaborate to create pop-up data marketplaces.
Delivering the Workforce of the 21st Century - Launchcode's initiative to re-skill individuals for high needs jobs.
Secure, Modern, and Mission-Capable Credentialing - This collaboration aims to improve the customer experience and efficiency of the credentialing process among its solvers, which include the Institute for Defense Analyses, West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, West Virginia National Guard, WVReady, University of Maryland-Center for Public Policy and Private Enterprise, and Marshall University College of Information Technology and Engineering.
Improving Grants Management Using Blockchain Technology - The MITRE Corporation team proposes demonstrating the benefits of a grants management operating model and blockchain-based Distributed Grants Ledger using the joint efforts of private sector technology vendors, state government agencies, universities, and community-based service organizations.
Areas of Excellence
Running a Transparent and Effective Evaluation Process
The challenge was designed to run through three evaluation phases. This encouraged multiple types of solvers to participate given the low barrier to entry in their initial submission.
As solver teams progressed through the evaluation process, they provided more detail on their project ideas. While multiple phases required more coordination and judging, they allowed for diverse judging panels who offered multiple perspectives in their evaluations. They also enabled solver teams to address challenge requirements in more manageable segments.
Phase 1: Project Proposal
In the first phase, solvers submitted a two-page project proposal to scale or grow an existing initiative to deliver a relevant solution to a PMA-related challenge in one year. Solvers were asked to address the following:
- project scope,
- anticipated results,
- team composition, and
- resource requirements
The GEAR center challenge team hosted a webinar where PMA experts gave context on each of the PMA areas and helped answer questions. The team posted questions and answers from the webinar on the GEAR Center page on Performance.gov.
A panel of three judges used Phase 1 (P1) criteria (as stated in the challenge page) to evaluate 49 proposals and select 20 semifinalists to advance to the next phase.
Phase 2: Project and GEAR Center PlanIn the second phase, the top 20 P1 solver teams were invited to submit a 10-page project plan and describe their ability to execute on it, as well as how this project would support a longer-term GEAR Center vision. They were asked to address the project plan and how easily they could do it, as well as GEAR Center model operation, impact, and sustainability.
The Gear Center challenge team hosted a second webinar to provide semifinalists more information on expectations for their submissions and to help answer questions. A panel of three judges (different from P1) used Phase 2 (P2) criteria to evaluate 20 proposals and select 10 finalists to advance to the final round.
Phase 3: Finalist PresentationIn the third phase, finalists presented their project proposals to a panel of federal executives, who were different from the judges from the first two phases.Teams presented their project proposals and engaged in an hour-long question-and-answer session with the judges. These sessions allowed judges to understand the innovation and the project feasibility, as well as whether the teams could deliver. The judges used Phase 3 criteria to evaluate presentations and select three grand-prize winning teams and five honorable-mention teams. The grand-prize winners each received $300,000, while no cash awards were given for honorable mention.
Engaging Subject-Matter Experts Throughout the Challenge
Given the complex challenges targeted through PMA initiatives, we knew we needed input from SMEs working on those initiatives.
The GEAR Center challenge team formed a network of CAP Goal team leaders and members, as well as other cross-government initiatives, to ensure the GEAR Center challenge would yield projects that would complement ongoing efforts without duplicating them.
This network was asked at several points to:
- Review and provide feedback on GEAR Center challenge description before opening day.
- Participate in solver team webinars to answer questions.
- Review and provide feedback on semifinalist (Phase 2) project plan submissions. Specific SMEs were engaged depending on project topics.
- Participate in finalist presentations (Phase 3) and provide feedback on novelty of proposed approach, project feasibility, and other technical considerations.
- Review final selection of prize winners
While engaging SMEs required extensive communications and coordination, their input was extremely valuable throughout the challenge. They were particularly helpful during Phase 2 and Phase 3 evaluations. Their deep knowledge of specific initiatives helped determine proposed GEAR Center project feasibility and potential impact.
Communicating Effectively with Solver Teams
Providing ongoing communications and guidance was essential for success. We used a dedicated email account to communicate with solver teams throughout the challenge about timing and next-step expectations to ensure that our process was transparent. We also used online meeting tools to engage with solver teams during the evaluation process. We used webinars to clarify intent for the first two phases, provide more context on the PMA initiatives with SME input, and answer solver team questions. During Phase 3, finalists could deliver their presentations to judges in person, virtually using an online meeting tool, or by combining the two.
Have a solid cross-functional team.
Throughout the challenge, we got the support of a highly capable and engaged cross-functional team. Our strategic communications partners helped us reach a wide range of quality solver teams from multiple sectors and to make clear announcements at key milestone events. The GEAR Center Challenge team’s general counsel provided timely legal advice throughout the challenge to ensure we conducted a transparent and sound process. Our budget office helped us to efficiently award payments to the three grand-prize winners. We engaged the budget office early in the process and had solver teams fill out necessary paperwork at the Phase 2 stage so that we could begin this financial clearance process early. The Challenge.gov team shared expert advice and best practices that helped us navigate every step of the challenge process.
Remember that communications clearances and approvals take time.
While we stayed on schedule all the way up to the Phase 3 finalist presentations, we had some delays while clearing challenge results with key stakeholders. We told finalists of the delays during this period and worked with our strategic communications partners and senior leaders to craft a clear announcement of challenge results. Once we completed the communications clearance process, we announced challenge results via multiple channels.
Challenge Type (Ideas)
The GEAR Center was conceived as a way to promote innovation in support of the PMA. The GEAR Center Challenge project ideas showed how innovative cross-sector partnerships can transform government mission delivery, service to citizens, and stewardship. By focusing the challenge on project idea proposals vs. solutions to specific problems, we were able to collect a diverse set of solver teams, given the broad scope and complexity of PMA topics. This approach also helped us to better understand the types of projects and cross-sector partnerships that a GEAR Center would be best suited for.
This competition was conducted by GSA under the authority of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (15 U.S. Code § 3719) as amended by the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2017.