Procurement challenges step up to the COVID-19 plate

Steve Kelman spotlights another example of how non-traditional acquisition models can encourage innovation.

Shutterstock ID ID: 698255827 By Supphachai Salaeman

Long-time blog readers may remember my frequently expressed enthusiasm for contests (“challenges” in government jargon) as an innovative procurement technique for government.

The basic idea behind a procurement challenge is that the government announces a problem it seeks to have solved. Anyone may then submit their solution, and the government chooses a winner or winners. When it announces a challenge, the government also specifies a monetary prize (hence the moniker “contest”) and further steps the government might take to support the winner(s).

During the Obama administration, the General Services Administration announced the website Challenge.gov to organize and promote contests. I have blogged about contests since 2009and earlier called them the single most-important innovation in government contracting in the last decade.

Aside from unleashing grassroots innovations, contests have another important (and cool) feature. You don’t need to be an expert on government procurement to submit an entry. There is no proposal -- it is a great example of the idea of “show, don’t tell” that should be more important in government procurement in general.

Research on the use of contests in the private sector by Harvard Business School professor Karim Lakhani shows that many winners are small, garage players -- often students. These kind of entrants would never bid on conventional government procurements, and contests therefore reduce barriers to entry to government contracting.

The Army has now decided to deploy a procurement contest for better and cheaper ventilators in the fight against COVID-19.

The challenge is sponsored by something called XTechSearch (the Army’s program, launched in 2018, for procurement contests) under the auspices of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology. First-stage winners will receive $10,000 to develop a prototype. Final winners may receive contracts for up to $1 million to provide ventilators to the Army. (The challenge is also listed at the challenge.gov website.)

The requirements to enter are very simple, basically a description of the idea in less than 1,500 characters and the estimated unit cost for delivering 10,000 ventilators. Entrants may choose to include a video of up to three minutes explaining their idea. “Production value does not matter at all,” the solicitation states.

The solicitation lists a number of evaluation criteria, all explained in plain English. For example, in terms of clinical mission requirements, it states: “Argue your solution meets these requirements: Respiratory rate of 0 to 60 bpm; Tidal volume of 50 to 1000 mL; Ability to measure and control peak inspiratory pressure; Adjustable inspiratory to expiratory time ratio; Ability to support triggered breaths; Provides Positive End Expiratory Pressure (PEEP); Able to use ambient air, or low pressure oxygen.” The solicitation presents relative evaluation weights for the various criteria.

This contest, like many, is very high-speed. Submissions were accepted starting April 5, and reviews of promising proposals was scheduled to begin on April 13. "Applicants should be prepared to deliver a virtual pitch of their concept within 1 week of submitting the application," the solicitation states. Ideas are still being accepted, and any U.S. entity may participate.

It is nice we now have this procurement tool in our toolkit to be able quickly to encourage innovation in such a critical area.

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