The Air Force discovers the value of contests as a route to innovation.
As blog readers are aware, I have been writing for years in support of the government making greater use of contests as a procurement tool -- announcing a performance objective and a prize for the first successful solution to the problem, where anyone can submit an entry. Aside from being a dramatic form of performance-based contracting, it opens up the procurement process and puts the emphasis on doing good work, not just filling out proposal paperwork. As with every off-the-beaten-path procurement technique, it is not suitable for everything, but like many unconventional approaches, it is underused.
I feel strongly enough about this issue that a few weeks ago in this blog, I chided my friend Alan Chvotkin for writing a column that I thought inappropriately discouraged agencies from trying out this idea.
Well, I recently discovered that the Air Force -- or more precisely the Air Force Research Lab in Ohio -- has successfully experimented with a procurement contest and is now taking up the technique as an accepted tool in their toolkit.
It began with a contest to develop a technology that could stop fleeing vehicles without permanent damage to the vehicle and without harming the occupants. The prize was $25,000. The contest was listed through the private firm Innocentive.com, the leading player that advertises contests (mostly from the private sector) to possible participants.
Amazingly, the challenge attracted over 1000 entries. The winner was a retired 66-year-old mechanical engineer from Lima, Peru. His solution involved a remote controlled vehicle that can accelerate up to 130 miles per hour within 3 seconds, position itself under the car, and automatically trigger an airbag to lift the car and slide it to a stop.
The Air Force had originally tried to solve this problem in-house with two small teams competing with each other, without success. Looking for innovative approaches to research, the Lab's Commander came upon a White House memo promoting contests, and he set the process in motion. (This would have been a perfect good-news story if only the lab's contracting folks had come up with the idea, but alas they didn't. 1102's elsewhere in government, take note!)
Intelligently, the Air Force used one of their non-profit consulting advisers to help them develop the terms for the challenge. They were working in unknown territory, and wanted help. This may be a good idea for other agencies trying procurement contests for the first time. They also got help from Innocentive.com, the company that serves as a platform for the contests (or "challenges" in Innocentive-speak).
Interestingly, Innocentive advised the Air Force to lower the prize -- their experience is that challenges that seem to promote a public good get more entries at lower prize levels than ones just being done for companies.
With the success of this contest, the Air Force has now set up a "pavilion" on the Innocentive website, called TecEdge, to advertise their contests. There are now several underway and doubtless more to come. Amazingly, a fairly large proportion of the contests advertised on Innocentive.com are government or public-oriented. NASA has a pavilion, and there are other pavilions called "Global Health," "Environment," and "Public Good."
I briefly interviewed Innocentive's CEO, Dwayne Spradlin, and the company seems excited by the idea of partnering with government -- Spradlin said that he himself has a long-time interest in public policy. He notes that the company has 250,000 "solvers" in 200 countries signed up to respond to the challenges that get posted.
In budget times when government can less and less afford to pay just for effort, we need to be looking aggressively for contracting vehicles -- such as contests and share-in-savings contracting -- that pay for results. Contracting professionals, show your stuff!