Building Community Through Internal Agency Hackathons

When you hear the term “hackathon,” you might think of a large public event where an organization invites anyone who is able and interested to come solve a challenge. There may be free pizza or blow-out prizes — especially if the hosting organization isn’t government — and often there is a specific API, data set, or product the organization wants participants to use in their solution, perhaps to encourage adoption or find new innovative use cases. But a hackathon doesn’t have to be a public event, and the goal doesn’t have to be marketing or “innovation.” Hackathons can make valuable internal community-building events for your agency.

What is an internal agency hackathon?

An internal agency hackathon is an event in which you bring together people in your agency for a set period of time to work on solving new problems together. It can take one day or five, happen virtually or in person, and be open to the entire agency or just a subset of teams. Participants generally should have a variety of skills and roles, so that hackathon teams can be multidisciplinary and not just full of one type of role, such as developers or data analysts. 

The problem scope for your hackathon can be open-ended, where you ask folks to bring their own problems they’ve been itching to solve. In this case, participants with ideas can pitch them at the beginning of the hackathon, and others can join their team if the problem sounds interesting to them. Alternatively, you can define a challenge: For example, you might ask participants to find and use agency data to answer and solve for a pressing question, such as “How long does it take a family to apply for and receive a childcare subsidy?” followed by “How might we make this process faster?”

By the end of the hackathon, each team should have a prototype of their solution – where “prototype” could be anything from a series of drawings or outlined process to functioning software – and should be able to present their solution in a compelling way in three to five minutes.

Why should I host one?

An internal hackathon is an opportunity for people to get out of the daily grind and turn their minds toward a fresh problem, with completely different expectations and constraints, and new team members. It’s low stakes, so people can have fun with it and feel safe exploring new ideas. It creates space for creativity and, more importantly, for community connections. Participants don’t just meet new people in their agency, they get to work with them and learn how other individuals and teams solve problems, what tech or tools they may be using, and how they communicate or set team culture.

How do I organize one?

1. Do user research. Go talk to people. Find out what people are struggling with regarding community building in your agency. Do they feel like they never meet people? Do they yearn to try new methods or technologies but don’t feel like they have the time or space? Do they want more opportunities to learn from their peers? Listen to them and figure out how their experiences and needs should shape your hackathon goals and design.

2. Set your guiding goals. You don’t need hard metrics, but you do need to know why you’re doing this. Complete the following sentence: “I’ll know my hackathon was successful if …” Possible answers could include: “Every participant meets at least two people they’ve never worked with before,” or “Every person tries one new tool, process, or programming language they’ve never tried before.” Incorporate these goals into your design, and incentivize the behaviors you want to see. After the hackathon, send out a survey to get feedback and help you determine if you met your objectives!

3. Educate your agency about hackathons. Most folks in your agency may have never heard of a hackathon, much less participated in one before. They might feel intimidated by the idea, or think that it’s only for hardcore coders. When you’re talking to people, even as early as the user research stage, start teaching them about what hackathons are and what you intend yours to be. Have a pre-hackathon event that introduces the idea and dispels any fears or misconceptions, and create some templates for teams to use in pitching at the start or presenting at the end. Make sure that people understand the goal and format and feel safe and supported coming into this new experience.

4. Get buy-in from other leaders and managers. You’ll need to have their support so they give their teams explicit permission to participate in the hackathon. Otherwise, you’ll struggle with attendance or people will try to multitask – and ultimately they will prioritize their “real work” obligations. This is especially true of contractor teams, who should absolutely be encouraged to participate as well!

5. Make it fun. Sometimes I feel that in government, fun is underrated – to our detriment. We’re all on a mission to serve the public, so we take our use of time very seriously, and we have rules around using money, so we don’t have typically have happy hours or agency-sponsored lunches. Meanwhile, we let gulfs widen between teams because of perceived contract rules or simply because of limited capacity. Don’t let your hackathon feel like more of the same. Incorporate some social time and fun activities, like a spaghetti tower marshmallow challenge for your ice breaker, or a trivia game over lunch. Hosting an enjoyable event where people can take a load off and build relationships will help you create a positive, productive agency culture.

Shelby Switzer is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University, helping governments build/buy software collaboratively through Beeck’s Intergovernmental Software Collaborative. Their career in civic technology spans a decade and includes volunteering with Code for America brigades across the country, contributing to open source and open standards projects, working at tech companies serving governments and community organizations, and leading various technology projects at the US Digital Service. They write regularly on civic technology and digital public infrastructure on their blog, Civic Unrest.

Photo by Jopwell via pexels.com

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