Agencies gravitate to low-cost contests as Challenge.gov celebrates its first birthday

Thursday - 10/6/2011, 5:38am EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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As budgets tighten, more agencies are turning to sponsoring public contests as a way to find innovative solutions. Administrators of Challenge.gov, a website that hosts all agency-run contests, said 36 agencies have held competitions with over $38 million in prizes in the website's first year.

General Services Administration officials said they would like to see challenges become as commonplace as contracts or grants, but worry that budget cuts could stymie growth.

GSA used money from the E-Government Fund to create Challenge.gov. But Congress shows little inclination to fulfill its entire funding request.

That's turned David McClure, GSA associate administrator of citizen services and innovative technologies, into something of a "challenge evangelist" as he seeks support on Capitol Hill.

"Congress is very interested in making sure that every dollar that is spent is improving operational performance in the government, giving citizens better service and is being done in the most cost-effective way," McClure said. "I think we've got all that nailed, quite honestly, and that's our story."

GSA hosted a workshop Wednesday for agency officials to share the lessons they learned through implementing competitions in Challenge.gov's first year.

Agencies gravitated toward challenges seeking technology solutions, such as apps that help kids learn about healthy eating, or attention-grabbing public service messages, such as homemade videos warning about the dangers of texting while driving.

"The range is quite large and that's the real benefit of it. It's not locked in to hard science. It's not locked in to manufacturing. It's not locked into just citizen engagement and awareness building. It covers all of that," McClure told reporters at the workshop.

He described challenges as "another tool in agencies' toolboxes," rather than a replacement for traditional procurement methods.

Challenges work best when agencies want ideas from either the general public or experts without government connections, said Kathy Conrad, the principal deputy associate administrator in GSA's Office of Citizen services.

"You want to reach outside the traditional audience you might reach using a procurement, contract or grant," she said.

For example, agencies choose contractors based on their past experiences and future promises, Robynn Sturm-Steffen of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy told workshop members. "But challenges can be less of a gamble," because competitors must deliver their products on spec, she said.

Challenges can be a low-cost alternative to awarding contracts because people participate, usually, for things other than money. Civic pride may be the only incentive necessary, Conrad said.

"For someone who believes in public service, the opportunity to meet the head of an agency and be recognized for their work may be greater motivation than a financial prize," she said.

But while challenges may not require a large financial investment, they require significant preparation time, said McClure. Agencies needed to know three things before running a challenge, he said: The specific goal, the participants who could fulfill that goal and the rules of the game.

"You don't want to set something up, get fabulous ideas and then go, 'My gosh. How are we going to choose the winner,'" he said. "That needs to be predetermined, pre-thought-out and documented so that you can convince yourself and the people in your agency — the decisionmakers that have to adopt this — that it has been done above-board and gone through some scrutiny."

While agencies could continue holding competitions even if Challenge.gov does not have sufficient funding, McClure said that would weaken the process.

"The fear we have is we don't want to go back to every agency doing their own thing. You lose the economies of scale. You lose the consistency of the user experience. You lose the quality control," he said.

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