Are Municipal Incentive Prizes the Wave of the Future?

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Incentive prizes have provided very large cash payments to innovators who solve specific problems.  They leverage private entrepreneur’s investment in advancing technology and services. “Incentive Prizes-Tools for Governments” in Searcher reports how government is using incentive prizes to pay only for results while stimulating private sector investment exceeding the size of the purse.

Two cities offered incentive prizes.  New York City sponsored NYC Big Apps, which was described as “a software application challenge in keeping with New York City’s drive to become more transparent, accessible and accountable.”  Washington, D.C. sponsored the Apps for Democracy – Community Edition which looked for the “best community platform for submitting 311 service requests to the city” in 2008 and 2009. 

Both projects were designed to spur new software development without the complications of writing requests for proposals, sorting through competitive bids, selecting and awarding a contract, and managing the contract.  They were able to bypass the many problems and costs of that whole process while saving a tremendous amount of time.

Washington, D.C. moved one step further in offering the DC Apps Store, a site that provides both government developed and individual or corporately developed software applications.  The apps promise to provide real time bus locators, information about locations and costs of parking meters, customized walking tours for visitors, and a vacant property locator.

While these are exemplary projects, and there are probably many others across the country, how will municipal governments sustain them over the long term?  Most of the apps are for only one device such as an Android phone or iPhone, so where is the incentive to make the apps available on other platforms?  Will the local government step-in to provide the other versions?

The apps that have been developed through the incentive prizes will have a broader impact, possibly for better or worse.  They will raise citizens expectations for the kinds of additional services that cities provide.  This will require the city to maintain all of the databases and GPS locators as well as follow-up on 311 service requests.  There will be ongoing budget implications.  So cities that adopt incentive prizes need to be sure to plan for the future implications of the winning services and programs.