Acquisition keeps eyes on the prize

Kelly Olson

Kelly Olson, senior innovation advisor and director at

Like any five-year-old, 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. 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 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 competitions from FY 2014
Project Total Prize
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 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 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 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 solvers the kind of detailed look into internal operations that would be required for enterprise-wide IT solutions.

However, Olson said 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 is due for some change itself, according to Olson.

"In five years, 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.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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