Fairfax County Launches Innovation Challenge

Fairfax County Launches Innovation Challenge

Challenge brings together several hundred attendees who “might normally not cross paths.”

A diverse audience gathered for Fairfax County Human Services Council’s Innovation Challenge, an event seeking greater community engagement.

A diverse audience gathered for Fairfax County Human Services Council’s Innovation Challenge, an event seeking greater community engagement. Photo by Andrea Worker.


Fairfax County Supervisor Dan Storck (D-Mount Vernon) discusses some of the issues with Human Services Council Member Thomas Goodwin (Providence District). Along with Council member Dr. Patrice Winter, Goodwin “hatched the idea” for the Challenge. Supervisors Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) and John Foust (D-Dranesville) also attended the event.

The Fairfax County Human Services Council thinks it’s time to shake things up, to build a new strategy for identifying, addressing and funding solutions for human service needs in the community, and they’ve taken the first step in that direction by hosting the Innovation Challenge on May 18.

Evidence from the recent Fiscal Year 2018 Budget process and the data collected in the “Human Services Needs Assessment” published last year, show a trend where more of the county’s residents require some type of assistance. In the words of Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, “Demand is outstripping resources.”

During the budget proceedings, some programs and initiatives were left unfunded, or given less than requested, and other initiatives and needs were rolled forward for future consideration.

Seven months ago, Human Services Council members Dr. Patrice Winter (Braddock District) and Thomas Goodwin (Providence District) “hatched an idea,” Winter told the attendees at the Innovation event. She said that the two convinced each other that a broader network of people from a greater variety of disciplines and experiences was needed to bring a fresh perspective to the various problems. With the support of their council colleagues and from county personnel, Winter and Goodwin directed their idea into the Challenge that brought several hundred attendees together who, as Winter put it “might normally not cross paths.” In her letter to the Innovation Challenge participants, Bulova called the community-driven program “unprecedented in that it brings together leaders of all elements of the emerging 21st century human services community: businesses, established and startup; financiers in social impact investment; social entrepreneurs; philanthropists and foundations; nonprofits, and outstanding thought leaders in academia. Fairfax County employees,” wrote Bulova, “are here primarily to listen.”

THE PRESENTERS and the attendees covered a range of varying interests and experiences. In her opening remarks, Winter acknowledged that everyone present — speakers, panelists and audience members — came to the table with their own underlying agendas, causes or points of view. She asked that those agendas be “left in the parking lot. Models, strategy and process, not issues, are our directions this morning.”

Speaking to the attendees, Goodwin applauded the audience’s presence at the event, telling them that by being there, they were participating in an experiment in community engagement. Working together produces significant results, he affirmed.

“We know that,” said Goodwin, using the example of the county’s Diversion First program that seeks to direct persons with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues away from imprisonment to treatment when they come into contact with law enforcement for nonviolent offenses. “Five agencies work together across turf” to make Diversion First work, said Goodwin.

The Innovation Challenge, intended to be the launch for a series of events, set forth three main objectives:

  • Exchange information about state-of-the art innovations that can address health and human service challenges.

  • Elicit new ideas from public and private partners to enhance services and maximize resources.

  • Set the stage for specific recommendations about service enhancements and resources required to present to relevant stakeholders in the future.

The first section of the program offered presentations from persons working directly in Human Services in neighboring Montgomery County, Md. When questioned on seeking funds from the business community or other non-governmental sources, Sharon Friedman, project director of Montgomery Moving Forward, advised that the key is to develop partnerships early.

“We don’t show up afterwards and ask for money,” said Friedman. Instead, possible collaborators are asked to be at the table from the start, “when the needs and the challenges are explained and discussed.”

Speaker Dr. Sallie Keller, professor of Statistics and director of the Social and Decision Analytics Laboratory of the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech (“Yes, what a mouthful!” agreed Keller) offered insights on “designed data collection” in the Human Services arena and work being done to better measure outcomes. “The goal is to democratize data … and to provide new language for communication … that can become a unifying thing around different disciplines.”

After a section devoted to “Progressive Funding Opportunities,” the organizers set the “social experiment” in motion with a series of “Reverse Pitches” to drive home the collaborative approach that Winter, Goodwin and colleagues hope to see develop from this first Innovation Challenge.

THE IDEA is to “pitch” community issues and have businesses consider them and offer their suggestions and potential solutions, instead of the traditional “company pitches a product model.” For the Innovation Challenge, real problems were shared, and real companies, who had been paired with the problem-presenters in advance for the sake of demonstration, came back with possible innovations, services, technologies, or skills sets that might be applied to solving the problem.

The topics chosen were familiar challenges for many in the audience. Heads nodded in acknowledgement when “Caregiver Support Services,” “Transportation Options for Older Adults and Individuals with Disabilities,” and “Skills Training for Today’s Employment” were presented to the partnered businesses.

Fairfax County, like many jurisdictions across the country, is facing the challenge of widening gaps between the human services needs of its residents and the county’s ability to deliver those needs within its budget constraints.

With the kick-off of the Innovation Challenge, the Fairfax County Human Services Council is seeking to perform what they call a “much needed facelift” on the traditional methods of addressing those challenges.

The public is encouraged to learn about the council at www.fairfaxcounty.gov, search Human Services Council and to review the “Human Services Needs Assessment” which is also available on the county’s website.

For details on area parks, services, and communities, see www.fairfaxcounty.gov. Search for tax bills, property transfers, and employment opportunities.