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Beyond Liberating Data, HHS CTO Seeks to Free Up its People

July 10, 2013
by David Raths
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Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service Source: HHS

Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer at the Department of Health & Human Services, often gives talks about his office’s efforts to make sharing data with the public the default setting at HHS. And he can point to successes in making data sets such has hospital-pricing information available. But his goals as “entrepreneur in residence” also include getting people within HHS’ siloed organizations to work together on new concepts.

Speaking July 10 at Converge, a summit for healthcare innovation in Philadelphia put on by MedCity News, Sivak said he tries to avoid using the term innovation. “If I tell you to be innovative, what are you going to do? We believe the definition really involves the freedom to experiment and you have to be allowed to fail. Failure is something government has a really hard time with.” He said HHS employees tend to be locked into very specific tasks and they are hierarchically constrained. He is trying to loosen things up a bit so that serendipitous exchange of ideas takes place more often.

He gave several examples of steps his 10-person staff has taken in the last year. One is an internal platform for collaboration across siloed organizations within HHS, which he described as an “internal Facebook.” Groups like NIH, CDC, FDA, CMS are geographically separate, have distinct organizational psychologies, and historically don’t connect well, he said.  Launched eight months ago, the internal collaboration platform already has 15,000 people signed up for it.

Sivak also wants to democratize communication and collaboration so that employees don’t always have to go through a chain of command. He gets frustrated that when he sees something interesting going on and asks to meet someone to talk about it, 13 people show up, because the person tells their supervisor, who tells their supervisor and they all show up. “So we are trying to change the culture of this massive bureaucracy,” he said. One idea to help with that is creating a physical space for people to meet and talk. The plan is to build a physical space called HHS Labs in the Washington offices that allows people to come together, and to include people from outside the department to join them in this space to cross-pollinate ideas.

Programs like HHS Ignite, launched two months ago, provide seed funding for new ideas. HHS Ignite provides $10,000 for up to six months for HHS employees to focus on specific problems. Currently 13 projects are in the works. Another program, HHS Fair Trade, acts like a Kickstarter crowd-funding effort. People present ideas and ask for resources internally to do it. Another program called HHS Entrepreneurs, started a year ago, brings in external entrepreneurs to work on some of the highest-risk, highest- reward challenges in the department, and they have only 12 months to do it.

“We are working to identify people in the department actively working on interesting things,” Sivak said, “so we can give them the tools and freedom they need to succeed.”

 

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