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Saturday
Mar132010

The government technology contest model continues its ascent

The White House memo, “Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government” released this past week frees US government department and agencies to open up contests to the public to help confront their most challenging problems. The memo removes some of the regulatory and bureaucratic uncertainty of the contest format and will likely result in a flurry of contests. Just in the past few weeks, several high-profile contests launched:

These app contests are on a much smaller scale than some of the biggest contests to date, such as NASA’s Lunar Lander challenge where teams have invested about $8 million to compete for $2 million in prize money for rocket-powered rovers that can traverse the moon’s surface; the $10 million Ansari X Prize from 5 year ago that ended with a private manned vehicle launched into space; the Department of Energy’s L Prize that I covered back in September; or DARPA’s balloon challenge.

But even though they are small-scale, I am excited by these contests largely for two reasons: 1) as a defense consultant myself, I see how the government tends to rely on institutionalized tried-and-true contractors who….don’t always have a reputation for fresh thinking; and 2) as a taxpayer, these contests are seriously cheap.

The risk in small scale app contests of course is whether ideas developed in pursuit of a couple thousand dollars will result in lasting products. There is probably enough of a signaling effect to encourage people to participate for the recognition, but the follow-through is where lies the challenge. In Apps for Democracy, a model contest for some of these efforts, three talented and otherwise well compensated and gainfully employed developers toiled for weeks creating ilive.at, which won the top prize. They only split a total of $3,000 but gained enough credibility for the effort to be worth it. Several months later, however, the app remains pre-beta and has yet to be touched since the award ceremony.

Talented people are willing to work for a while to develop something for nearly nothing except for prestige, but I hope these second generation app government contests better institutionalize the continued development and refinement that make really good apps that will be of real value to the citizens, Soldiers, and government employees they hope to reach.

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