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By Steve Kelman

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Government contests come of age

Shutterstock image: illuminated light bulb signifying an innovative idea.

When I first started writing about using contests as an innovative way to procure some products or services, some 10 years ago, they were largely unknown in government. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was the early adopter -- plowing the ground, literally and figuratively, by organizing a contest where people could enter all-terrain vehicles that would have to navigate a desert obstacle course. The first to do so won the contest, and a prize.

As an ultimate form of pay-for-success contracting, and (as it developed) as a way to encourage non-traditional players into working to meet government needs, contests -- I am about to give in to government-ese, and call these “challenges” -- have immense virtues for meeting certain kinds of public purposes.

I knew challenges were spreading, a fact recognized by the Harvard Kennedy School giving its Innovation in American Government award to Challenge.gov, the GSA contest site. But I had no idea just how big these have become until I read, in a recent Deloitte report called The Craft of Incentive Prize Design, that the U.S. federal government alone has organized some 350 challenges -- and hundreds more have been organized by state/local governments and by philanthropic foundations.

This may be one of the single largest changes in government management in the last decade. (My nominations for the others would be increased use of performance measurement and government's use of social media.)

We now have enough accumulated knowledge about specifics for how best to manage challenges to justify this quite meaty, very useful 52-page (excluding appendixes) Deloitte tome. The report notes that agencies use challenges for different purposes: Mired in the original DARPA example, my own mental model was contests used to develop innovative products or apps, physical things. However, as the report notes, this is only one use of contests. Challenges can also be used to develop ads or slogans for campaigns to raise awareness of public problems, to develop new ideas for policy approaches to problems, or to develop skills one would like to see spread more in the population.

The Deloitte guide is filled with very practical, very operational advice, including:

  1. Consider dividing a big challenge into a number of smaller contests, which will attract a wider range of participants and a wider skillset;
  2. With the increasing number of challenges, be sure to have a marketing campaign to publicize awareness of the challenge, because otherwise there is a danger of getting lost in the clutter;
  3. Adapt the nature of prizes to what the challenge involves – for some kinds of challenges, ownership of intellectual property is important, or introductions to venture capitalists, while for others, public publicity and praise is crucial;
  4. Think about who will do the judging in advance, and be sure to resource judging sufficiently.

These are just a few, almost random, examples from the report. Deloitte has performed a real public service by releasing this, and I urge anyone in the challenge business, or considering dipping your feet into it for the first time, to read carefully.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 11, 2014 at 12:02 PM


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Reader comments

Thu, Jul 17, 2014 Mel Ostrow

Lord knows what the govt paid Deloitte, which should know better. Virtually all major IT systems houses steer clear of "challenges" or try to cleverly use them for furtive positioning. They do not trust the government to keep their proprietary info proprietary. They are tired of seeing their ideas seeded into RFPs so "all can share." They have had it with doing "free" work for unappreciative and slothful bureaucrats who should be willing to pay for some of what is elicited in challenges. Smaller firms have often rudely exploited, in their naiveté. They often have less cushioning to bear the risks of USG ripping off ideas. Why, Professor, should anyone trust the government in these challenges? Deloitte, which must have its own agenda, did not exactly address this question.

Wed, Jul 16, 2014 Al

The artwork on the cover of the report makes me think of the glory days of te old Soviet Union . . . now I need to read it . . .

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