A Win-Win

Prize competitions for IT solutions.

There's more to running successful competitions for IT solutions than meets the eye.

It's no secret the Obama administration wants to bring change to the federal information technology space. Soon after his June 2009 confirmation, Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients set his sights on closing the IT gap that has left the government lagging the private sector in productivity gains during the past decade. President Obama himself has lamented the technology available at the White House.

Finding fresh ideas to reboot federal IT is harder than identifying the problem. By definition, innovation requires taking a step back to determine the best path to change, and that can be difficult for employees struggling with outmoded technologies.

Increasingly, government agencies and private entities are turning to competitions-some with cash prizes-to find creative solutions. But attracting interest and setting parameters without stifling creativity can be tricky.

The General Services Administration's Challenge.gov website, where federal agencies seek "innovative or cost- effective submissions or improvements to ideas, products and processes," is the hub for competitions in federal government. The contests run the gamut: NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are asking high school students to write an algorithm that will enable three small satellites to fly around the cabin of the International Space Station. The winning code will be sent to the space station, where an astronaut will test it. The Health and Human Services Department has challenged the public to submit online tools for preventing dating violence and sexual assault. The winner will be publicly recognized and finalists' ideas will be featured on the HHS website.

Other competitions offer financial incentives, some quite large. The Defense Department's UAVForge Challenge to produce small unmanned air ve- hicle systems features a $100,000 prize.

Cash prizes aren't necessary, however, says Steve O'Keefe, founder of MeriTalk, an online community of government IT specialists. "People are focused on what we call WIFM, 'What's in it for me?' " he notes. "It's not all traditional, selfish stuff." A think tank or university could be looking for prestige or exposure of ideas, or a contractor might care more about winning work opportunities than cash.

MeriTalk recently ran a challenge featuring a $50,000 prize. The competition generated more than 1,000 ideas on how to use IT to improve government, and proposals flowed in from Pocatello, Ind., to Timbuktu. Winners included Aung Gye, a Federal Highway Administration employee who suggested reducing waste by creating an interactive database of government resources, from conference space to office equipment to automobiles. Daniel Kestranek of Pennsylvania State University proposed a secure U.S. passport mobile application that would allow citizens to sign in temporarily and download data via near-field communications.

More goes into creating such competitions than meets the eye. "The method or mechanism to induce innovation seems to have many advantages, but no one is talking about the drawbacks," says Luciano Kay, author of the IBM Center for the Business of Government report "Managing Innovation Prizes in Government." Even with detailed requirements, it's difficult to know what the result will be, Kay says. "The more you try to reduce uncertainty by being more specific about rules and quality of outputs, you are, at the same time, reducing the landscape of possible options," he says.

Contest designers must present exciting challenges, offer prizes that stimulate commercial opportunities and nonmonetary benefits, set simple rules and consider alternative funding sources, Kay says. Implementation requires collaborating with co-sponsors, taking advantage of promotional opportunities, responding to participant feedback and selecting winners objectively, he notes.

As competitions yield results, more people are likely to want in on the trend. But agencies are finding that tacking up a contest flyer on a telephone pole is hardly sufficient to spark the level of innovation the Obama administration is seeking.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.