“Deconstructing” Public Prize Competitions Can Result in Better Solutions

Gold medals

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When faced with a big, daunting problem to solve, it’s human nature to try to tackle it by breaking it down into smaller parts and taking it “one step at a time.” The message from a recent DigitalGov University webinar on public prize competitions (AKA ‘challenges’) was that the government can often receive better solutions by going through the exact same process, and giving awards at each step.

A great example of the power of this style of challenge is the Healthcare Fraud Prevention Partnership (HFPP) Challenge, which was run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). It was broken into 55 discrete pieces, with an award at the end of each “mini-competition.”

One of the challenge managers of the HFPP Challenge, CMS’ Jason Zeiler, was on hand to discuss the thought behind the challenge. He brought with him Andy LaMora of TopCoder, who worked with CMS on the “atomization” of the solutions. Together, they explained the benefits of awarding smaller prizes for many contests, rather than one large sum for multiple stages of work. Among the reasons to deconstruct a challenge:

Lowers the Barrier of Entry for Competitors

By deconstructing a challenge that asks for a piece of software, for example, an agency can involve solvers who may not have all of the skills to get from point A to Z, but could be very good at what’s needed to get from A to D. Breaking down such a challenge into small competitions on ideation, conceptualization, storyboards, wireframes, architecture, code development, and bug hunts allows potential solvers of all skill sets to contribute to discrete parts of the overall solution. If the challenge was structured in a way that solvers were required to submit only the final solution, there would be fewer people with all the required skills, and therefore, solutions may be of lesser quality.

Decreases Required Investment from Solvers

The “many small competitions” model allows solvers who have families, work obligations, or other things consuming their time to contribute without having to devote hundreds of hours to the solution. And yet, if a solver would like to invest large amounts of time and effort to the solution, he/she can, by entering multiple sections of the deconstructed challenge. In the end, an agency may attract more competitors, and therefore potentially better solutions, by allowing for varying levels of commitment.

Mitigates Risk

One of the most unfortunate scenarios possible in a challenge is receiving solutions that don’t meet the correct criteria or performance standards. Sometimes this is a signal that the challenge was unattainable, or sometimes agencies realize their criteria was too strict. While challenges as a whole are less risky than procurement because agencies can choose to pay only for success, a lack of sufficient solutions is nevertheless a disappointment. By deconstructing a challenge, risk is mitigated because a failure to solve one of many competitions doesn’t have to derail the entire challenge. A single competition can be canceled, re-worked, and re-issued, adjusted for the factors that needed addressing. Then, the challenge can continue.

See the slides for more information:

The HFPP Challenge tandem of Zeiler and LaMora made clear that the process of deconstructing a challenge requires more thought and a reliable collaboration structure; but for the right kind of challenge, they said, it can be well worth the effort.

If you would like more information on challenges and prize competitions, become part of the Federal Challenge and Prize Community listserv. If you are interested in entering a challenge like the HFPP Challenge, see the list of government challenges at Challenge.gov.