Innovation in HHS is centered in its IDEA (Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship and Action) Lab, whose work is split across eight initiatives. The IDEA Lab, established in 2013 by the HHS Secretary, broadly promotes the use of innovation as a framework for achieving HHS' mission of enhancing and protecting the health and well-being of the public. IDEA Lab initiatives "empower internal innovation, tap into external talent and creativity, and build collaborative communities to tackle cross-cutting issues of strategic importance. The Lab creates a space (both in terms of a physical location and in terms of opportunity) to facilitate the freedom to play, ideate, and experiment in pursuit of improving the health of all Americans." (Source: HHS IDEA Lab - About Us)

Three core principles underline HHS' approach:

  1. Every individual has the ability to improve the health and well-being of Americans;
  2. People are more powerful when working together; and
  3. There is a solution to every problem.

HHS has actuated these values through three main strategies:

Tools and Approaches

HHS leverages a variety of innovative tools and approaches. From the use of inter-agency and public-private partnerships to advance the Department's work, to deploying prizes and challenges to source great ideas from unexpected places, to recruiting new talent to leapfrog progress, the overriding message is a willingness to experiment and embrace new ways of doing that result in more effective, focused outcomes.

IDEA Lab initiatives include:

  1. The HHS Ignite Accelerator is an internal innovation startup program: [crosslink Lean]
  2. HHS Ventures Fund: Invests in and supports bold ideas to transform Departmental operations [crosslink tiered-grantmaking]
  3. HHS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence: Bringing in top external innovators and entrepreneurs for tours of duty to solve complex problems in health and the delivery of human services. [crosslink tour of duty]
  4. HHS Innovators-in-Residence: Brings new ideas and expertise to tackle a critical problem of shared interest between the Department and not-for-profit organizations. Through the program, not-for-profit organizations can sponsor a paid fellowship to be filled by an individual with a background in entrepreneurship and innovation. [crosslink tour of duty]
  5. HHS Buyers Club: Modernizing IT acquisition, procurement, and contracting. [crosslink innovative contracting]
  6. Health Data Initiative: Liberating health & social service data to serve the public.
  7. HHS Open Innovation: Leverages incentive prize and challenge competitions to source external solutions from unexpected places. [crosslink prizes and challenges]
  8. Invent Health Initiative: Empowering makers and creators to invent tools for better living and better clinical care.

Other essential components of the HHS innovative landscape include:

Key Insights

  • Motivating the process of change
  • Building a culture of learning and discovery
  • Empowering those on the frontlines
  • Starting small with pilots, and capitalizing on quick wins
  • Institutionalizing change with employee-driven initiatives
  • Driving change from the top

From then to now: Motivating the process of change

Early on in his tenure, former CTO Bryan Sivak saw that many long-term public servants felt stifled by the compliance-driven, risk-averse culture of government. "While most private companies will approach a problem with a positive attitude and a list of possible solutions, many government organizations face problems with an attitude of reservation and a list of reasons why the problem is impossible to overcome. This attitude kills many people's intrinsic values (value, freedom, and skill development)—the very values that brought many people to government in the first place." The goal of launching the IDEA Lab and related innovative initiatives at HHS was to help empower the creative problem-solvers in the Department get their ideas heard and tested – and in doing so, "reignite the fire" that brought them to government.

Culture of discovery of learning

Culture change doesn't happen overnight; it's a difficult, lengthy effort, explains Sivak. Any attempt to drive cultural change has to contend with a complex communications and community-building challenge, agrees CTO Susannah Fox. For any new innovative tool, how to actually implement a specific mechanism or authority is often not widely known by program offices, and often, potential benefits and drawbacks are also not clearly understood. With over 90,000 employees across 12 largely independent divisions, HHS responds to the challenge in three ways:

  1. Improved internal communications, which include bi-weekly newsletters that transmit valuable how-to knowledge and news to an active listserv community
  2. Simplification of process, which include documentation use cases and creating simplified guides to help offices deploy new methods
  3. Community engagement among Divisions, which include site visits, presentations, and the cultivation of an active network of mentors and experts [source: HHS 2015 Prize memo]

HHS has also emphasized genuine support for staff-driven innovation; employees are empowered to co-create a culture of learning and discovery. For instance, a Lightning Talk at the 2016 HHS Innovation Day evaluated how to help HHS' existing learning management system become more responsive to users' actual needs. Using actual user feedback to pinpoint design priorities, they iterated prototypes for new ways that the Learning Portal could more effectively transmit knowledge and offer required trainings. This particular Lightning Talk was an exercise, but it exemplifies how the Department has welcomed and encouraged employees to lead with their own change-oriented mindset and innovative problem-solving approaches.

Listen: Bryan Sivak offers advice about creating culture change [2:30]

Empowering frontline employees to share ideas

"We have this radical notion that good ideas can come from anywhere," says CTO Susannah Fox. The IDEA Lab is a response to the realities of a large, hierarchical organization: "If somebody three layers down has a fantastic idea, how likely - and how empowered, – is that person to raise their hand?"

"What the IDEA Lab does is provide literally a physical place for people to come, and sometimes even close my door to whisper, 'I have an idea.'" IDEA Lab initiatives are geared around building a pipeline for innovation by empowering career staff to speak up, share ideas, and receive resource support to actualize them, whether that entails small venture funding, training, or even bringing in outside talent. (The Entrepreneur-In-Residence program, Fox explains, "grafts an entrepreneur onto a team that has a great idea, but just needs that skillset to come in and empower them.")

Starting small with pilots and capitalizing on quick wins

The IDEA Lab uses a seeding model; employees with innovative ideas can receive a small sum of seeding money to explore their idea. If the activity shows signs of success, the results are used as evidence to receive larger funding from the Department. This lean, evidence-based approach – starting small with pilots and iterating based on results – encourages a culture of experimentation, and lets good ideas "bubble up" from unexpected places.

Institutionalizing change through employee-driven initiatives

Recognized the pattern of how adoption is diffused through a large organization [crosslink back to Adoption Curve discussion], HHS leadership has focused its internal efforts on the early adopters. Acknowledging their ideas and providing the resources to help achieve their goals help to generate early wins. Having small successes to point to builds further buy-in across the organization. HHS leadership is explicit that the central support provided for innovative tools is ultimately driven by the demand of the offices that recognize the value of a particular tool. Attempting to drive change by imposing edicts from the top is not an effective way to genuinely transform ways of working; instead, uptake is driven by HHS offices and divisions that genuinely embracing new approaches.

Read more: Samantha Ehlinger, " HHS Innovation Day Tries to 'hack the red tape'." FedScoop, July 14, 2016.

Driving change from the top

Leadership has been integral to driving the culture change by setting the tone and reinforcing an environment for creativity and experimentation. "Be brave enough to bring your ideas forward," Susannah Fox charges. "Creative thinking is a muscle we must exercise. Progress happens outside our comfort zone." (Source: Susannah Fox, " HHS Innovation Day: Innovation is a Force for Good." HHS Blog, July 27, 2016).

But while it's easy to convey those messages, it's essential that leadership take actions to create an environment that is open and receptive to new ideas. "I literally have had people tell me great idea, and I say, 'That's a great idea – you should share it with your boss!,'" recounts Fox. "And they say, "No, no, I can't. It's above my level; that's why I'm bringing it to you; you're allowed to have an idea like that." Driving culture change requires leadership to inspire confidence in employees that it's OK to speak up, and it also has to ignite within management a similar receptivity.

Next Steps

Guided by a customer-centric approach to understand and directly respond to the barriers encountered by different offices, HHS is continuing to expand the use of innovative work across the Department, with a particular focus on:

  • Simplifying the prize and challenge execution process, and increasing the participation among HHS divisions in the use of prize competition authority
  • Creating a recurrent bootcamp, based on a 2015 pilot, to provides HHS offices with an accelerated peer learning environment and focused mentorship
  • Growing operational capacity for innovation in continuing to improve communication among program, acquisition budget, legal, and leadership offices (Source: HHS memo to OSTP – "HHS Report on Prize Competition Activities Conducted in FY2015.")