White House discloses administrative costs for innovation contests

Federal agencies not only are doling out prize money in their innovation competitions, but some are spending thousands of dollars on contractors and staff time in administering the contests, according to a new report.

Four federal agencies spent at least $267,000 to run innovation competitions, the White House disclosed in the April 10 report.

For example, the Agriculture Department hired the public relations firm Ketchum for $72,000 to administer the MyPlate Fruits & Veggies Video Challenge, the report said.

The goal of that challenge was raise awareness of the new MyPlate food icon, which First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary Tom Vilsack launched in June 2011 to encourage healthy eating habits.

Another $25,000 was spent on staff time and $9,000 for prizes in that competition.

The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy issued the progress report on federal prize authorities and competitions. It praised several agencies, including NASA and the Defense and Energy departments, for their successes in holding open competitions and using prize money incentives to spur development of innovative technology solutions.

The report also noted the administrative costs of several of the competitions, but did not indicate that they were excessive.

The Center for Disease Control & Prevention’s “Flu App Challenge” offered prize money to developers to create social, mobile and game applications to improve communications about influenza. The administrative costs were $59,611, paid to contractors and staff, and the prize money totaled $35,000.

In addition, the National Cancer Institute, along with the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, spent $80,000 on a contract to administer a challenge for cancer reduction, the report said.

Another agency with administrative costs noted in the report included the Veterans Affairs Department’s Blue-Button challenge to encourage development of solutions for easy downloads of personal health information cost $30,614 for staff to administer, with $50,000 in prize money. In that example, the report specifically said the administrative costs were "modest."

The administration has established Challenge.gov and released guidelines and authorities allowing agencies to sponsor challenges.

The report did not offer information on administrative costs for every challenge. White House officials were not immediately available to explain why administrative costs were detailed for only four of the competitions.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Reader comments

Thu, Apr 12, 2012

You can bet that the Government spends a lot more on these "contests" than what they will ever report. As long as it is taxpayers money, they have no qualms about throwing around money on these distractions that are more "feel good" projects or trying to create a favorable impression than on doing something that provides a service at least equal to the value of the money being spent.

Thu, Apr 12, 2012 OccupyIT

But wait, contests are free! In a few years everyone will be scoffing at the idiocy of contests. They are essentially PR stunts and should be budgeted and assessed as such. I think they are successful in that light. As procurement vehicles it is shear idiocy. They are basically scope-free procurements where each offeror is being asked to complete the project and then check to see if they will get paid. Winner takes a paupers wage and the other faithful offerors lose even more than the winner. It is a slumlord's approach to creating an e-sweatshop. Everybody works and only the USG gets paid. Nice. Thank you, Alice!

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