How does a government agency get new, workable ideas for intractable problems? Try a case competition.

Last month, graduate students from four area universities—Duquesne University, University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon and Chatham—participated in a case competition to generate innovative ideas to prevent housing instability. The Allegheny County Department of Human Services (DHS) gave sixteen teams 72 hours to conceptualize and present solutions to the pervasive challenge.

The winning team presented “The Housing Stability Campaign,” a model that incorporates strategies typically associated with consumer marketing campaigns. The team proposed that the agency form partnerships with grocery stores, banks and drugstores—places frequented by everyone—and use the credit/debit card processors at the end of checkout lines to deliver information useful to those at-risk. This may include information on where to turn and organizations that may be of assistance in times of crisis.

Members of the winning team were: Keely Tague, from the Duquesne University Graduate Center for Social and Public Policy; Dominic DiNinno from the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business; Janine Jelks-Seale from Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management; and Lindsay Angelo, from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

The DHS launched the Local Government Case Competition in 2007 with the objective of generating innovative ideas and introducing talent from the city’s graduate schools to government service. This year, 60 students participated.

Erin Dalton, Deputy Director for the Office of Data Analysis, Research, and Evaluation, says, “It’s really about getting students to understand the work of local government. We’ve hired a lot of the students who participated through the years—students who otherwise may not have gone to work because of perceptions about what the DHS does. It gets people more interested.”

She points to the winning proposal as an example of how students generate ideas that are innovative as well as sound. “Every year we get seriously great ideas—this year, I can point to at least two great ideas—one was insurance against homelessness and the other was the use of the grocery store checkout and ATMs as points of contact for prevention.” She adds, “These were truly innovative. The cases are complicated and proposals that win are ideas we haven’t already thought of.”

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment. She is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She writes about the intersection of food, health, innovation and policy.