Apps aplenty: Public-sector contests produce uneven results

There's something so American about the idea of holding a contest to develop the latest and greatest applications for government. Like democracy itself, the public contest seems to acknowledge the innovative spirit of the American people — and their thirst for recognition, if not cash awards.

There’s something so American about the idea of holding a contest to develop the latest and greatest applications for government. Like democracy itself, the public contest seems to acknowledge the innovative spirit of the American people — and their thirst for recognition, if not cash awards.

Army officials are pleased with the response to its Apps for the Army (A4A) contest, in which 53 individuals or teams developed Web-based applications to support Army operations or services in a span of 75 days, all vying for a share of the $30,000 cash pool.

The proposals will go through a security review before heading to a panel of judges, who will pick the winning submissions in eight categories. The winners will be announced in August, according to an Army press release.

It’s not just the prospect of cash awards that sets this program apart, Army officials said. A4A was also designed to foster new software development practices that can enable more rapid deployment of applications.

The House Armed Services Committee has given a thumbs up to the program while casting aspersions on a similar contest at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. One of the primary differences is that A4A has the backing of Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, the Army’s chief information officer.

A committee report notes that “Sorenson has ‘a closer understanding of the warfighter's needs and requirements,’ compared to DARPA,” reports Bob Brewin at NextGov. “The report also criticized DARPA for not ensuring its program would not conflict with the Army project.”

But like democracy, the public contest is sometimes messier in practice than in design.

As you might recall, one of the pioneers in this field is Vivek Kundra, who as chief technology officer for Washington, D.C., launched the Apps for Democracy contest in 2008, with a top prize of $50,000. City officials are now rethinking the whole idea.

Bryan Sivak, D.C.’s current CTO, is uncertain about the long-term value of the winning innovations, reports Steve Towns at Governing.

“Sivak calls Apps for Democracy a ‘great idea’ for getting citizen software developers involved with government, but he also hints that the applications spun up by these contests tend to be more ‘cool’ than useful to the average city resident,” Towns writes.

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