VA embraces procurement challenges at scale

Steve Kelman applauds the Department of Veterans Affairs' ambitious attempt to move beyond one-off prize-based contests to combat veteran suicides more effectively.

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Many blog readers will be aware that I have over the years been a big fan of challenges (also known as prizes) as a procurement technique. 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 or winners.

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.

I first wrote enthusiastically about these way back in 2009, based on a DARPA contest for developing an all-terrain vehicle. Most recently I wrote about the Army using a challenge to develop a better and cheaper ventilator in the context of COVID-19. I have written, and continue to believe, that the use of challenges in procurement is the most significant procurement innovation of the last decade.

Challenges have varied from very elementary and not very consequential (e.g. a contest to develop an agency logo) to much more mission-critical. For example, a few years ago the IRS conducted a challenge to design an online experience that more clearly and easily organizes and presents a person's tax information, including ways to more easily use tax data to help people with other financial decisions, such as applying for a loan.

However, even more difficult and complex challenges have up to now been one-off efforts: the government publishes the challenge, bidders respond, and the government chooses winners. Now, though, the Department of Veterans Affairs has published an RFI for a challenge that will take this procurement tool where it has never been before. VA officials are seeking to develop approaches to reduce suicide among veterans

The agency is envisioning creation of a user-friendly platform where veterans (and possibly others in at-risk groups) can gain enhanced access to a range of suicide-prevention services, such as scheduling, assessments and mental health resources, while preserving their identities and privacy. The VA also hopes to personalize and customize services to directly meet veterans’ needs and recognize certain risks in users’ personal lives, information about care paths and more.

The VA’s vision is that the platform would involve automated learning to update information provided the user. Data analytics and AI would learn from the "user journey" through the VA ecosystem, adapting and responding to the individual user's needs, fears and concerns. Over time, the information presented to that user would be increasingly curated for their specific needs. 

Not only is the topic of the challenge difficult and high-visibility -- about as far from designing an agency logo as you can get -- but the way the challenge will be organized will be far more ambitious than any the government has attempted in the past. The VA will be doing a procurement not for the challenge itself but to manage challenges that then would be put out for submissions.

As the VA puts it in their RFI, “the chosen partner would need to provide management support services necessary to help build the program from the ground up—and seamlessly execute the competition from beginning to end. The dedicated collaborator would support the delivery of everything from the timeline, scope and design of the complex challenge, to technical support, Though VA would provide some of those funds, said. in raising money for the prizes winners will receive. “the hope is the vendor would be able to facilitate outreach and increase fundraising for the prize purse, so that it's not just taxpayer-funded money that goes to support this effort, but actually potentially private funds from companies and others who are interested in solving this problem,” the VA states.

This will be a complex and large enough activity that the VA doesn’t have the bandwidth to do it with in-house resources. So, to allow development of challenges at scale, it is actually seeking to let a contractor organize that effort.

This is a first, and an amazing innovation by the VA. The idea has been shepherded by the VA’s Chief Innovation Officer Michael Akinyele. It was in the works before COVID-19, but the explosion of unemployment will make the suicide problem worse and hence has prompted the VA to move the effort faster.

If this works, it will add an important new tool to the government’s contracting toolkit, available to others across government. VA, congratulations on a great idea, and good luck making it work.

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