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By Steve Kelman

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Procurement contests get their due

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A nice email came into my mailbox the other morning from the Kennedy School media person, announcing that the General Services Administration had won the annual Innovations in American Government award co-sponsored by Harvard Kennedy School and the Ford Foundation, for its contest site. was the only federal winner this year. is GSA’s version of a platform for enabling procurement contests – an innovation pioneered a number of years ago by DARPA where the government outlines a performance challenge and promises a prize (usually money plus publicity) for the first entrant who successfully solves it. I have written a number of blog posts over the years advocating use of this idea in the procurement system. In fact, I’ve written about this so much that I got an email shortly after the announcement came out, from a federal contracting lawyer, asking whether I was behind the award to GSA. (Actually, for better or worse, I had nothing to do with it.)

The GSA press release highlighted two examples of use of contests as a procurement tool, one by the FTC for developing an application that would screen out annoying “robocalls” that plague people (often at dinnertime), the other to develop apps that would help disabled people apply for jobs.

The FTC Robocall challenge got almost 800 entries. “If there is public engagement about the topic of the challenge, you will find a lot of people come out of the woodwork to enter,” GSA’s Tammi Marcoullier told me. Two winners tied, and received $25,000 each. Google was also a winner in a separate entry category for large organizations, which had no monetary prize associated with it. One winner is called “Nomorobo,” developed by a young

New York techie named Aaron Foss, and at this point available to the public for free. The way it works is described as follows:

Nomorobo uses an existing feature of the current phone system along with the power of cloud computing to fight back against illegal robocallers. By using simultaneous ringing, the call is split and routed to the Nomorobo server as well as the user’s phone. Instantly, Nomorobo analyzes the call and determines the threat level by using machine learning to identify and adapt to new robocallers based on their calling patterns. Nomorobo inspects the CallerID header, analyzes the frequency of every call, and compares this data to its real-time black and white lists. Potential robocallers are presented with an audio CAPTCHA for final verification while legal robocallers have their phone numbers whitelisted to guarantee message delivery. If it’s an unknown robocall, Nomorobo answers and immediately hangs up. If no threat is detected, Nomorobo does nothing and the call goes through like normal. All of this happens instantly, before the consumer’s phone begins to ring.

The Labor Department made three awards – with cash prizes of $5,000, $3,000, and $2,000 – for its disability employment challenge, two chosen by a panel of judges headed by the Secretary of Labor, and a “people’s choice” award selected by public voting. The people’s choice award involved an Android app called “Speak as you think!” that allows the voices of people with speech impediments to express themselves more understandably in their speech.

GSA’s Marcoullier also told me about a contest by the Mint for designing a new coin. Compared to their normal stable of a dozen designers, the Mint got hundreds of entries in its contest, and got connected with talented designers they didn’t know about before. This is consistent with research by Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School, which I discussed in a column some time ago, finding that contest winners in the corporate world are frequently small businesses the customer knew nothing about before.

Contests are probably the most-interesting governmentwide innovation out there in the last five years, so this idea certainly deserved the prize it won. It is heartening how widely this is spreading. If your agency hasn’t tried this yet, at this point you don’t have to worry if you don’t want to be an early adopter. Non-U.S. blog readers, any use of this in your country – and if not, could/should there be?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 27, 2014 at 9:54 AM

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Reader comments

Thu, Feb 6, 2014 Al

Thank you, Prof. Kelman- I will search for that column. I'm not sure how often this comes up, but FAR 36.602-1(b) describes (barely) a procedure for A&E design competitions. So there is *some* precedent I didn't think of when I posted the original comment. Thanks for your time!

Mon, Feb 3, 2014 Steve Kelman

Al, thanks for your question. I agree with Tammi's response. I would also add that a crucial role for the contracting professional is to have this tool in the toolbox for consideration in specific procurement contests. Program officials often will not know this alternative exists. Check out the column I wrote maybe about a year ago about what kinds of procurements are most suitable for contests.

Thu, Jan 30, 2014 Tammi M

Al, We consider challenge competitions a part of the procurement toolkit. And procurement expertise is needed as part of an agency team to launch a successful challenge (one reason, because not everything should be a contest). If interested in talking more about this, email

Wed, Jan 29, 2014 Al

I love these contests, I think they are a wonderful tool. What value do we as procurement professionals add to them? There is no best value tradeoff, no negotiation, and perhaps no contract to administer after the contest is concluded. There is an obligation of the Government to cut a check, which is why it runs through the procurement group, but that seems like a thin reason to justify our involvement. I'd love to hear your thoughts, Prof. Kelman!

Mon, Jan 27, 2014 Aaron Foss

Thanks, Steve! I appreciate the coverage. These kinds of contests really do work. I was completely unaware of the robocall problem until the FTC ran the Robocall Challenge. And now, I’ve been able to build it into a great business. - Aaron Foss Founder, Nomorobo

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