At age 5, Challenge.gov is opening doors to the federal market for problem solvers, but it may never be a vehicle for large-scale IT projects.
Kelly Olson, senior innovation advisor and director at Challenge.gov.
Like any five-year-old, Challenge.gov is eager to explore new things.
But the General Services Administration's online pay-for-performance crowdsourcing solutions portal, designed to inject innovation into the acquisitions process, is finding that some activities are just too complex for this early stage of life.
Challenge.gov was added to the contracting mix by the White House in 2010, to offer a non-traditional path into the federal marketplace. The anchor site lists federal prize competitions aimed at solving federal agencies IT and technical challenges. More to the point, the competitions offer cash rewards for the most innovative private and public sector experts to craft technical solutions without having to invest in development or staffing to do the same in-house.
"Instead of paying first and hoping a solution is delivered, GSA's approach minimizes risk and encourages creativity by inducing dozens and sometimes hundreds of potential solutions and leaving the government agency free to pick the best before delivering a reward," Kelly Olson, senior innovation advisor and director for Challenge.gov at GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, told FCW. "It's an approach that opens up space for individuals and smaller businesses to shine in a sector often crowded out by big companies."
Olson maintains the platform is a success. In a September blog post, she noted that some 80 agencies have used it since it was rolled out in 2010, launching more than 440 challenges, with total prizes topping $150 million.
|Top Challenge.gov competitions from FY 2014
|SunShot Prize: Race to 7-Day Solar||$10,000,000|
|DARPA Cyber Grand Challenge||$9,750,000|
|Rebuild by Design||$2,000,000|
|The SunShot Catalyst Program||$1,005,000|
|National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition||$600,000|
|FDA Food Safety Challenge (2014)||$500,000|
|NIH Follow that Cell||$500,000|
|CDC No-Petri-Dish Diagnostic Test Challenge||$200,000|
|American Energy Data Challenge||$170,000|
|CDC Predict the Influenza Season Challenge||$75,000|
Some 200,000 solvers -- a mix of entrepreneurs, budding citizen scientists, students and others -- have participated in these challenges to solve important local, national and global problems, said Olson, who's been heading up Challenge.gov since January 2015.
Over the summer, she said, federal agencies posted more than 20 new challenges on the site, ranging from apps that use open data to help farmers feed the country, to a search for algorithms to detect electromagnetic pulses and help predict earthquakes.
Despite the successes, however, some observers are a little skeptical the site has significantly moved the needle to rev up innovation in federal acquisition. Others said that gauging its impact requires metrics more subtle than measuring the total number of participants.
"It’s a tough question," Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement said when asked if Challenge.gov has had a significant impact on the way federal agencies acquire IT services. "The things being done are on a small scale," but to have an optimal impact, such efforts must have a larger strategic mission.
One federal CIO told FCW on background that the program was not really made to develop intricate replacements for legacy IT projects, but could offer down and dirty solutions and produce new, more user-friendly interfaces to those larger systems.
"[While] you can do challenges for a better user interface to the old systems," the CIO said, "the old system itself eventually needs hard work to get the data out and make sense of where business processes need to be recreated on a new cloud platform and things like that."
Users do come to Challenge.gov to develop solutions for large-scale IT projects, Olson said, and noted that she’s working hard to get challenges that go beyond logo redesigns, photo competitions and other relatively easy lifts.
Bigger projects present a potential problem, Olson acknowledged. For one thing, agencies might not want to publicly offer Challenge.gov solvers the kind of detailed look into internal operations that would be required for enterprise-wide IT solutions.
However, Olson said Challenge.gov is working with GSA’s Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, the government-wide program that provides a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services, to solicit an open-source tool for quality checks of FedRAMP documentation. That tool, she said, is intended to completely automate the current manual review process that can take over 40 hours to complete. It will cost a fraction of what a traditional procurement would, as well as take significantly less time to develop and tap into a broad public network to participate, according to Olson. This will enable the team to select from multiple solutions and award the prize money to the one that meets the criteria.
And Challenge.gov is due for some change itself, according to Olson.
"In five years, Challenge.gov will be a broader umbrella across government,” she said -- one that will offer crowd sourcing, open-source solutions, and new innovative tools for agencies. The program is also adding a mentorship program that will tap 16 people now working across the federal government at various agencies for specific expertise, like legal issues, prized design and other capabilities.
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