New ideas for idea competitions

The government needs to re-energize its approach to crowdsourcing innovation competitions — now that people are willing to help.

Innovation contests came on strong in the federal government in 2010, buoyed by enthusiasm at the White House. At last count, agencies were sponsoring more than 60 idea competitions on Challenge.gov, and it’s an easy bet that more will launch in 2011. Some will produce great results, and others might fizzle. The coming year is likely to bring more attention to what it takes to create a winning format.

“Contests will continue to be a positive force in 2011, and we will get better in how we run them,” said Brad Rourke, president of the Mannakee Circle Group. He recently authored a study on idea contests for the Case Foundation, Domestic Policy Council and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The trend began in 2008 when Vivek Kundra, who was then chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, started an Apps for Democracy contest that drew lots of developer interest.

After Kundra joined the White House as CIO, President Barack Obama endorsed contests and challenges in the Open Government Directive issued in December 2009. Several agencies have held competitions since then.

Some have been highly successful, including two efforts by the Veterans Affairs Department that generated 10,000 submissions from more than 50,000 employees. Others have sputtered. The Social Security Administration held a video competition that didn't get even 10 entries.

In September, the General Services Administration launched Challenge.gov to publicize contests and help agencies share best practices.

As 2011 begins, the contest trend shows no signs of stopping. But the next round might become more targeted to increase the chances of getting a worthwhile result.

The Case Foundation study notes that concerns have been raised about maintaining fairness and arranging proper legal authorities for the contests because participants have tried to game the system or the voting process.

In the Case Foundation study, Peter Lee, who was director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Transformational Convergence Technology Office at the time, said, "Ensuring absolute fairness is hard. It took much more time than we expected." Lee has since left DARPA to become managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond.

“The contests are not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing,” Rourke said. “You cannot just announce it and expect the floodgates to open. You cannot take your eye off the day-to-day management.”

“With the right structure, I would say that apps competitions have proven very beneficial to government,” said Larry Albert, executive vice president of Agilex Technologies, a vendor involved in the Health and Human Services Department’s application development efforts for electronically exchanging health data.

In the coming year, federal agencies are likely to become more strategic in their use of innovation competitions depending on their goals, said Adriel Hampton, producer and co-founder of Gov 2.0 Radio. An application development contest ought to be designed differently if the goal is to build an inexpensive solution rather than to build general awareness and support for the agency, he added.

“The question is: What do you want to achieve? Is the contest for obtaining a solution more cheaply, or is it public relations-driven?” Hampton asked. “There is a long way to go to build contests with sustainable value and processes.”

Read more of 6 ideas with some 2011 bounce or return to the 2011 Federal List.

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