By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Challenge.gov redux: How GSA helps the government change

Last week I blogged about the (to me) amazing fact that in five years, no fewer than 80 government agencies had begun to use a new and different procurement technique -- contests -- to buy solutions that pay only for success. In a previous blog, I had noted that over a similar five-year period, virtually all Cabinet departments had begun holding data-driven meetings to examine performance against targets, typically led by senior agency political leaders.

Those two developments, I wrote, suggest the worries that changing government is near-impossible might be too pessimistic.

If you peel the onion and ask how those changes became possible, one common feature is the presence of governmentwide entities with the capacity to facilitate change -- by acting as cheerleaders for the innovation and providing technical assistance to agencies that are doing this for the first time.

For the data-driven meetings, that assistance has been provided by the Office of Management and Budget and the Performance Improvement Council, an interagency group with representatives from major Cabinet departments and agencies. For Challenge.gov, Director Kelly Olson notes a number of techniques the General Services Administration uses to help agency newbies get started with -- and then better at -- challenges.

GSA provides guidance for organizing challenges in several broad areas, including software development/apps, technology demonstrations and "ideation" (coming up with ideas for solving a problem). For example, the guidance for organizing software development challenges includes making decisions about "whether you want to catalyze the creation of open-source code and software that others can build upon, or if it is necessary for your agency to own the intellectual property rights (or license them)."

The agency also advises that "depending on complexity, a series of small challenges may be preferable to a large one that demands more time and resources." Other material discusses metrics that can be used for challenges and provides insights into what motivates participants.

GSA also offers help involving real people. There is a government-only community of practice, with 700 members involved in working on challenges. Just this month, GSA announced a challenge mentorship program, with 20 mentors to evangelize and train others how to conduct challenges. And government folks can request no-cost, in-person consultations with GSA's Challenge.gov team by emailing a request to challenge@gsa.gov.

Finally, what would GSA be without a procurement contract? And indeed, there is a contract (Special Item Number 541 4G), with 16 vendors, for "Challenges and Competition Services."

Broadly speaking, beyond the specific knowledge provided, GSA helps the organizational change process in two ways. Two of the barriers to change seen as particularly important in government are risk aversion and, relatedly, fear of making a mistake.

Generalized risk aversion makes organizations worry about poking their heads up from the crowd too much. Here, GSA provides agencies with cover for trying something new; they can point to the governmentwide endorsement GSA sponsorship provides.

Meanwhile, individual employees, especially in government, are often terrified of making a mistake, given the tendency of the media and politicians to be silent about successes but pounce on failures. To the extent GSA materials help agencies understand how to organize contests and thus reduce the probability of mistakes, changing becomes easier as well.

There are numerous examples of institutions at the center of government with capabilities to provide this kind of assistance for organizational change. Some of this occurs informally through the various governmentwide councils, ranging from the Performance Improvement Council to the CIO, Chief Financial Officers and Chief Acquisition Officers councils. Some of it occurs through governmentwide management organizations such as GSA, which can provide the kind of assistance made available for Challenge.gov.

If you want to change government, such organizations -- both formal and informal -- should be promoted and nurtured as important tools.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 22, 2015 at 2:19 PM


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