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Open Source Bidding and Innovation

A few weeks ago, Michelle Murrain asked a great question--How do we make change if we keep doing things the same way? (I would argue that you can't, but that's not the point of this post.) Now David Wilcox and some other collaborators are looking at how they can use a different process for a familiar nonprofit activity--responding to a Request for Proposal/Invitation to Tender (depending on your location). Writes David:

. . . the Cabinet Office wants to promote innovation among UK nonprofits, and is offering £1.2 million to anyone who can come up with a plan for a Third Sector Innovation Exchange - and also put it into practice over three years.

My initial reaction was slightly sceptical, because despite brilliant work being done by extraordinary people there are many barriers to innovation in the sector, and even more to sharing. Why give away your best ideas when competing for funding? Why try and do things differently if that would mean getting rid of most of your trustees first? As a fall back, there's the fatal "We have always done it that way."

Then I got a few calls from people who were thinking of putting in a bid, and we fell to wondering whether it might be done differently. If one of the things that stifles innovation is the way that procurement of services is handled, couldn't we demonstrate a different approach while still meeting all the tendering requirements?

The solution David's team is betting on here is open source bidding:

A small group is undertaking research and developing ideas for the bid online – and inviting others to join in the process. The inspiration for this approach comes from an increasingly collaborative online world, where people are prepared to allow others to build on work they have done.

They're inviting world-wide participation via their Open Innovation Exchange website  (created in Drupal, another open source environment) and asking interested participants to join in by:

  • writing about this on their blogs or other spaces with a link, or add this tag - openinex
  • registering on their site if you want to be associated with the proposal by adding specific ideas
  • contacting the organizers if you think you might be able to offer something to the core team

(Note that all content will have a Creative Commons license attached to it. More info on the bid and process here)

This is a really fascinating undertaking that I think has a lot of potential. As the organizers point out, if you're trying to get innovation, you should start by modeling it. Given that this project is about "piloting new approaches to fostering, exchanging and replicating third sector innovation," an open source process for developing the bid seems particularly appropriate. I think it's far more likely that the process will result in truly new and innovative ways of thinking than the "normal" mode of proposal development which tends to occur in isolated silos. As David aptly points out:

The difficulty in tendering for complex and challenging projects is that you know your proposals may well turn out to be inadequate because there's no way of figuring out in advance  what will work. Ideally the solutions have to be worked out with those who are "the problem". But if you do go in with a proposal full of co-creation workshops with stakeholders, there's a danger you will be seen as fuzzy. It's all too easy to end up either in tacit collusion between consultants and funders to do something rather inadequate, or acrimonious disputes about failure to "deliver".

Certainly this will be a test of the sector and its ability to break free of traditional territorial, scarcity thinking. In my more optimistic moments, I'd like to believe that organizations invested in doing good in the world could model the best of human behavior, which I think is what is asked for in this process. But there's a lot to overcome--our innate tendency to "preserve" our best ideas for ourselves, our sense of competition in a world where it seems resources are becoming ever more scarce, our fears about risk-taking. All of these are the mental barriers that people will need to overcome in order to really participate in the process.

For myself, I intend to hightail it over to the site and register. I want to be a part of doing things differently, even if it means having to push past my own comfort levels and into new territory.


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Thanks so much for that encouragement. Much of our inspiration for taking an open source approach has come from nonprofit bloggers selflessly sharing work in progress. See you in the excahnge, I hope!

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