Sunday, January 14, 2007

U.S. Department of Challenges

I'm not one of the Ferengi, or Acquisition Corps members, that my corporation uses to buy stuff, but it does seem to me that we could be better stewards of government money.

For example, back in the mid nineties, the U.S. DoD issued a bid for the a Quantum Fratblaster Space Time Continuum Dominance Weapon [for some reason, I can't find a citation]. Now, the DoD puts out a request for proposal, views the bid, selects the most competitive bid and then....assumes all the risk.

Say Lockheed Dockmartens gets the bid. The government agrees to pay them the extraordinary sum of ONE MILLION DOLLARS (in Dr. Evil Money). Well, Lockheed Dockmartens production schedule slips. So the government throws them another million. Then gives them a bonus. Then the DoD Project Manager retires, and goes to work for Lockheed Dockmartens, LTD (an unrelated company). Finally, after twenty years, ONE BILLION DOLLARS (in real money), and fits and starts, Lockheed Dockmarten delivers the weapon system.

Only it's a duck. With a slingshot.

When I bought my latest car, I didn't walk into the dealership, tell them what I was looking for in a car, and then wait for them to build the car. Instead, the Car people developed a product, and hoped it met my needs. The producer assumed the risk, for an eventual pay off, and made a good product, to boot.

So, how would the U.S. Department of Challenges work? Well, instead of a request for proposal, you'd issue a request for product. I need this weapon system to do this. Get back to me when you're done. Or, I need a lunar colony, able to support ten astronauts (and this slingshot wearing duck), get back to me when you're done. I need and oil shale burning, pebble nuclear reactor. You get the point.

Researching my post on Private Space Ventures, I kept coming across the various challenges out there.

"Revolution through competition."

The best known: The Xprize foundation. They ran the initial prize, about ten million dollars, that inspired Burt Rutan to put develop Spaceship One. Now they're running a Lunar Prize, Genomics Prize and an Automotive Prize.

You also have NASA's Centennial Challenges. Their "Regolith Challenge" has me pretty excited. But the sums there, especially compared to the Xprize, are kind of miserly. Come on, guys.

So, the Secretary of Challenges figures out what a certain challenge is worth to the Federals, put out a request for product, tags a price, and waits.

You'll probably have a lot people climbing that mountain.

Just because it's there.

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