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Does Challenge.gov Deserve a Fist Bump?

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, September 10 2010

Wow, is Fast Company's Austin Carr not impressed with Challenge.gov, the shared platform for contests and competitions that the Obama administration unveiled at Gov 2.0 earlier this week. Netflix did this years ago, as have other for-profits. The $10 million X Prize is almost fifteen years old. "So why should we applaud the government for creating this 'new' site?," needles Carr.

Carr's is an understandable complaint, rooted in a sense, I think, that an optimized federal government could, in a perfect world, compete well with the private sector. If Netflix can launch a million dollar challenge to refine its inner-workings as early as 2006, then why does it take the U.S. General Services Administration until 2010 to offer $12,000 for better recipes to make for kids? One thought: it's a dangerous thought to hope for a federal government that's as nimble as your average start-up, or that has as high a tolerance for risk as your Silicon Valley innovators. An advantage of a slow-footed government is that we, the people, can outrun it.

(Of course, another enormous factor here is that we're really talking less about the technological progress of a two-century-old Federal Government of the United States than about a start-up presidential administration that's less 20 months old.)

But Carrs' dig against Challenge.gov is an echo of a question that Katie Jacobs Stanton talked about in our space when she was moving from Washington DC to San Francisco, from the U.S. State Department to Twitter headquarters. Why does it seem to be so hard to innovate from inside the four walls of government? Should it be easier? Those are harder, more complex questions than we might give it credit for being, but yet they're ones that seem like the unspoken elephants in the room when it comes to all our discussions of e-gov, we.gov, and all the rest.

We hear a lot from Silicon Valley, from programmers, from tech-industry innovators about what government should be doing better. Be more like us!, they say. We hear less, though, going in the other direction -- from east coast to west coast, let's say. Government employees, agency staffers, even government contractors, what are the good arguments for why it's reasonable that it would take until the second decade of the 21st century for the federal government to build a Challenge.gov? Are there any? Let me know. (Anonymity is, of course, yours if you want it.)

Follow-up: Check out this post for insights from a federal contractor who says, to put my own spin on it, that Challenge.gov isn't part of the problem, but part of the solution -- solving in one big hit the legal and other structural hurdles that can cow the composite parts of the federal government into not innovating.

Follow-up #2: A source with in-government experience writes in to suggest that there's an incentive problem at work here: "Take Elizabeth Warren, she came up with the idea for a new consumer finance protection bureau -- arguably on par with an idea for a new company -- and her reward is...what exactly?"

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