How contests can improve government performance (and procurement)

Blogger Steve Kelman believes public contests are a great way to generate ideas to improve government operations and cut costs.

I also saw recently that the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of contests to develop public service announcements on various environmentally-related themes. But given the fact that the prize was a mere $2,500 for developing the videos and that PSA's cost the government nothing to air, it is almost impossible to imagine that this isn't a great deal for the government -- assuming that the underlying purpose of the PSA's is even vaguely worthwhile. The criticism sounds like a know-nothing effort to mock attempts to find innovative ways to make government work better -- a pastime in which too many members of Congress have a tendency to engage.

The Washington Post reported today that the second annual contest for employee-generated cost-savings ideas for the federal government is underway. Government employees may submit ideas through July 22, and both other employees and members of the public will be allowed to rank and comment on the ideas, sort of like the PepsiRefresh project I wrote about in an earlier blog post. Last year's contest generated a lot of ideas, though a lot of it pretty small-bore stuff, I think. I would like to see employees this year come up with ideas, for example, for how requirements on existing contracts might be modified to save money (does a two-hour repair time cost twice as much as a three-hour repair time? Are there applications being maintained and upgraded that nobody uses?).

The bottom line, though, is that in the appropriate circumstance a contest is a great way to generate ideas and, above all, to pay only for results.

Last March, Jeffrey Zients, the chief performance officer at the Office of Management and Budget, issued an extremely thoughtful and detailed memo entitled "Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government." (Full disclosure: my wife works for Zients, although not on these issues.) The memo discusses in detail different kinds of contests and when they are appropriate, emphasizes the virtues of contests in terms of paying only for results and not requiring the government to choose which team to bet its money on.

The memo even discusses statutory provisions that can be used to authorize contests; my own view is that in the procurement area, it would be helpful specifically to authorize procurement contests in the FAR, perhaps Part 16; however, the guiding principle that “if it's not illegal and it's in the government's interest, then it is legal,” should be enough. (My only nit with this excellent memo is the politically correct title that puts this effort under the rubric of "open government," one of its virtues, but in my view very much a subsidiary one compared with its results-based features.)

two members of Congress had attacked
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