VA innovates innovation ideas

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor

Veterans Affairs is always looking for new and innovative ways to improve the care they provide, and they seem to have hit on a winner.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki recently announced the selection of 26 winning ideas in the Innovation Competition.

Dr. Peter Levin, Senior Advisor and Chief Technology Officer with the VA, told Federal News Radio that 26 may sound like a lot, but consider what they started with.

Those employee generated ideas focused on utility of the existing EHR (Electronic Health Records) program, the accessibility of our health services, and of course the safety of those services. It was a tremendous, tremendous thing. We had tens of thousands of ideas from 50,000 people, all together who participated, and downselected them to a hundred ideas which were reviewed by a panel which finally selected the winning 26.

Even more exciting for the CTO was that 55,000 employees out of 300,000 got actively involved and engaged.

“Perhaps more importantly,” said Levin, “is that they commented and voted on those ideas, so we used a very sophisticated but easy to understand crowdsourcing technique to help us downselect to the winning ideas.”

Using a competition, said Levin, has proven to be well worth the effort spurring innovation.

If you look at the traditional ways that government in particular, public sector generally, attracts new ideas, there’s these very large, cumbersome requests for proposals. They involve tens of pages and lots of detail work, lots of administration. We’re trying to break through the infrastructure a little bit. We’re trying to break through this red tape and get to the people who have the ideas.

The result is several thousands of ideas all at once, as opposed to dozens.

Even more important than that is the cultural benefit, and this is really where I think you see a huge change – groundswell in the open government philosophy that President Obama is promoting. We’re in a deliberate, focused and accessible way reaching down into the employees and saying “hey, you’re part of this team. You matter. We need to know what you think. Can you share with us how we can help you get your job done better,” and that’s really the most important benefit of all.

As for the winning ideas already generated, Levin said the process now converts into a more conventional innovation initiative or research or development project.

We have the acquisition folks involved, we have the HR involved, and we have a very comprehensive framework for performance metrics and outcomes. All of those things existed already, we’re just putting them together, putting those component processes together, in new and creative ways.

On the heels of this success, another $80 million dollars in funding has been announced to boost the VA Innovation Initiative. Next up is the Industry Innovation Competition, looking to the private sectors for fresh ideas to address needs.

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