Chicken and Muffins: The Broad Agency Announcement and the Power of Co-Creation
Pay your own way to attend a workshop? Put intellectual property on the table? When I heard these were conditions put to invitees to my first USAID Broad Agency Announcement co-creation workshop, I thought folks were crazy. Yet, to my surprise, everyone showed up. The same was true for the next four workshops I facilitated... But why?
I’m fond of telling colleagues new to co-creation and the Broad Agency Announcement that it’s less the money that USAID is putting on the table for basic research, applied research, or research and development that gets people excited – and more the brainstorming, idea generation, and networking that motivates attendance. People like this pay-to-play model in spite of there being no guarantee of walking away with an award. Attendees, after all, benefit from meeting a broader peer community working a similar issue. They enjoy taking off their parochial organizational “hats” and talking about problems and potential technical pilots to tackle these challenges. They like getting in USAID’s head and influencing, sometimes significantly, how we as an Agency are taking on some of these challenges. And they’re making connections with third parties for future bids for traditional solicitations. Sure, we foot the bill for chicken and muffins to keep folks satiated throughout the rigorous process; but the investment attendees make in joining a co-creation workshop also has numerous knock-on effects. Many participants are also intrigued by the potential to sole-source to scale upon successful completion of a pilot.
What further excites colleagues is the fact that they are equal participants with attending organizations in the co-creation process. Not silenced by regulations, the Broad Agency Announcement actually encourages Agency personnel to speak up and chime in. Watching this play out has often been entertaining. Staff worry about prejudging the outcome of the process, while attending groups over-search for signals from USAID about direction. But during the course of a well-run workshop, people ultimately come to understand the process, and irrespective of organizational affiliation, work together to design optimal technical solutions to whatever problems are before them.
In the five co-creation workshops I’ve facilitated, we have insisted on coalition-building and pooling the best elements from different expressions of interest – the one-to-three-pager that potentially gets you access to the event. The process privileges no one. Anyone, after all, can pull together a few pages of thoughts on suggestions and strengths. This isn’t something that requires a full-blown, 50-page, $10,000 proposal. Even the most entitled organizations are humbled by the need to collaborate and build coalitions to be competitive. Some even opt to play “second fiddle” to smaller, lesser-known groups, gaming the system in thinking the Agency might be looking for new talent or fresh blood. Weeks after one workshop, a participant wrote to me saying that while his concept hadn’t been selected for funding, his group went on to win several awards from other donors in cooperation with other workshop attendees. It’s all about the convening power of the Agency. Indeed, this type of co-creation is in the spirt of the USAID Forward reforms, including those related to procurement. I’ve seen groups that never had prior business with USAID in the past win awards – sometimes at the expense of bigger, better funded outfits.
I’m most satisfied when, after a workshop, I scan the walls of the room and find them covered in block paper and masking tape, filled with sometimes dozens of concepts which emerged on site at the hands of folks who most likely didn’t know each other before the event. This exciting mix of experiences and perspectives benefits the Agency even beyond the Broad Agency Announcement process itself, since this new knowledge helps to inform our strategic planning and thinking about future procurements. And nothing is better than when a senior leader, initially skeptical about the process, takes the microphone to admit that Broad Agency Announcements really work – that co-creating does bear fruit and produces results not possible through a traditional procurement mechanism. I’m proud of my colleagues for admitting what we don’t know and seeking input from outside of our walls to invest our limited resources intelligently. I see it on the faces of participants, including other donors who sometimes walk the workshop halls, picking and choosing concepts off the wall like they’re pushing a grocery cart.
Co-creation is the future in our business. Get ahead of the curve by reading more at https://www.usaid.gov/partnership-opportunities/respond-solicitation/broad-agency-announcements (public site). (USAID staff can learn more at https://pages.usaid.gov/theLab/CDI/toolkits-and-training (internal site) and sign up to attend a mock co-creation workshop through the Acquisition & Assistance Lab at https://sites.google.com/a/usaid.gov/sidp-special-initiatives-and-development-partners/broad-agency-announcements/workshops-and-webinars.)
Dr. Charles Kiamie III is Regional Program Coordinator for USAID/ Middle East and a co-creation enthusiast. USAID colleagues who wish to learn more or request him to facilitate a Broad Agency Announcement workshop may reach him at email@example.com.