By Steve Kelman

Blog archive and change in government

Shutterstock image (by Ismagilov): young woman thinking about the future.

Change in government is difficult and slow, the story goes.

Last week I wrote about the spread of data-driven performance meetings, typically led by high-level agency officials, through most of the government in the past five years. Now, five years is not exactly Silicon Valley speed, but I say we shouldn't knock it, given what a big place the government is. (More than 20 Cabinet departments and other large agencies were the potential organizers of such meetings.)

Around the time my blog post came out, FCW Staff Writer Mark Rockwell wrote a detailed and informative article on what I have usually called "prizes" but are becoming, thanks to the General Services Administration-run website, generally referred to as "challenges." Challenges are a procurement method where the government presents a solution on which it wants people to work and specifies a prize (usually cash) that will go to the winner or winners. Anyone can enter.

Challenges are a dramatic form of what is often called "pay-for-success" contracting because payment goes out only if contestants' efforts actually work. I first blogged about contests in 2009, a year before was launched.

For me, the headline in Rockwell's article was the bottom-line numbers. If you had asked me how many agencies had organized challenges using the site since it was launched, I would have guessed 15. In fact, 80 agencies have issued challenges through the site since 2010.

Most of the challenges are pretty cool. The Food and Drug Administration had a contest for ideas on how to more quickly find disease-causing organisms in food, especially salmonella. The $300,000 prize was won by researchers at Purdue University who developed a technology that makes it possible to process samples in hours instead of days.

The National Institutes of Health had a contest for biomedicine technologies that could help underserved populations or those with disabilities. In that case, $10,000 prizes were won by two students from Washington University in St. Louis who developed a technology for diagnosing and monitoring respiratory diseases in the developing world. It cost less than $10, compared to traditional prices of $1,000 to $2,000, without sacrificing accuracy. (The students have used their prize money to help get their startup company to produce the devices off the ground.)

The winners, as these two examples suggest, are most often not the typical crew that bids on traditional government contracts, which is one of the great-news stories from this technique.

A quick look through some of the major challenges on shows relatively few for IT, however. Challenges are not appropriate for any sort of major system design, for starters because no company will invest the kind of money required to see if a solution works without being paid anything at all until the effort succeeds.

There should, however, be opportunities for the government to use challenges for more bite-sized IT projects that might attract new contestants. Rockwell's article notes that a challenge is being prepared to solicit an open-source tool for quality checks of FedRAMP documentation for cloud computing, which could make the process go much faster.

In the IT space, the government should be looking for projects that garage-type individuals or small companies can accomplish.

One thing that needs to be kept in mind, though, is that the size of the prize must be larger than the expected cost for a traditional procurement that pays for failure as well as success because many contestants will not take the risk without a correspondingly larger potential reward.

The information about the spread of data-driven meetings and procurement challenges suggests that the image of slow-to-change government, while not completely inaccurate, is exaggerated. As Sandford Borins wrote in his 2014 book "The Persistence of Innovation in Government":

"Innovation as a phenomenon within the public sector persists. Despite skepticism about whether large, hierarchical, monopolistic government agencies can initiate and embrace change, there is extensive evidence that they can, they do, and they will."

The reason, he said? "Because innovators persist."

There are countless civil servants committed to advancing the public good, and if doing so requires doing business in a new way, there will be folks out there who are willing to try, despite the obstacles. Good for, and good for those who take up the challenges! This might be the most important innovation in the procurement system in recent memory.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 13, 2015 at 1:10 PM


  • Contracting
    8 prototypes of the border walls as tweeted by CBP San Diego

    DHS contractors face protests – on the streets

    Tech companies are facing protests internally from workers and externally from activists about doing for government amid controversial policies like "zero tolerance" for illegal immigration.

  • Workforce
    By Mark Van Scyoc Royalty-free stock photo ID: 285175268

    At OPM, Weichert pushes direct hire, pay agent changes

    Margaret Weichert, now acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, is clearing agencies to make direct hires in IT, cyber and other tech fields and is changing pay for specialized occupations.

  • Cloud
    Shutterstock ID ID: 222190471 By wk1003mike

    IBM protests JEDI cloud deal

    As the deadline to submit bids on the Pentagon's $10 billion, 10-year warfighter cloud deal draws near, IBM announced a legal protest.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.