HHS wants more innovators to ‘hack red tape’

The Health and Human Services Department isn’t taking “no” for an answer — at least when it comes to innovation at its Idea Lab.

The upcoming fifth round of the HHS Ignite Accelerator will be the biggest one yet, thanks to high demand from the agency’s employees.

“There are incredibly smart, energetic people all around HHS that are just begging for these types of opportunities,” Read Holman, program manager for the Ignite Accelerator, told Federal News Radio. “While maybe there are a handful of people that aren’t sure if they want to engage with us, our demand is much greater than the supply at this point.”

Ignite can typically support about 12 teams for each round. This time, HHS plans to accept about 24 teams, Holman said.  The first round  had 65 applicants, which was more than expected after Holman sent out just a few agencywide emails.

The Accelerator collects applications from employees within HHS who have ideas on improving the way their offices and agencies function. Selected teams work with agency mentors to cultivate, test and build their ideas.

The Ignite Accelerator isn’t the only program born out of the Idea Lab. It also launched the HHS Buyers Club and the Health Data Initiative, all under the idea that the department and its individual employees can “hack red tape.”

“Our goal is to maximize potential individuals to solve problems, the problems and pinpoints that they see in their work,” said Susannah Fox, HHS chief technology officer, during the agency’s Idea Lab Demo Day Sept. 17. “As they start to change these problems, we can really unleash the power of the agency and fulfill our mission.”

Eleven teams presented their ideas at the demo day. The ideas ranged from developing electronic vaccination records, to building a global bidding and staffing system to help HHS find and assign the right people to help with global health crises.

Fox said HHS isn’t trying to create the next Twitter or Facebook, it’s trying to take smaller steps that will help employees do their jobs better.

“We’re about the small, incremental changes,” she said. “They might make more of a difference in people’s lives than the moonshots.”

The path toward realizing and making those changes is a long one, and from its start, the Ignite Accelerator has continued to refine the program.

Based on the lessons he’s learned from the first four rounds, Holman said he’s making the program more selective. Rather than choosing teams based on their pitches alone, employees will work with mentors early on to investigate their ideas, talk to their audience and refine their ideas. Then  the Ignite program makes its final selections.

“We know now that the first month-and-a-half of Ignite … there are a number of teams that end up changing directions, pivoting dramatically, because they’re all early stage explorations,” Holman said. “We want to have more people do those early stage explorations so that during those two months they can receive some training.” 

Holman, who also mentors teams once they’re selected for the program,  encourages them to develop their ideas in the same way he was encouraged to start the Ignite Accelerator. He said when the agency launched the program, it only had the basics — a start date, an end date and a few goals.

“It’s so easy to sit in a room. It’s comfortable to look at Excel spreadsheets and map everything out,” Holman said. “It’s really uncomfortable to announce something and not know how it’s going to go. But that actually allows you to better serve the people that end up getting in there, because that’s the exact same thing that they’re going through.”

Ultimately, HHS wants to break down the walls between the person who’s running the program or building a product and the customers the agency is trying to serve.

“It’s better, but it’s not completely fixed,” Ned Holland, assistant secretary for administration at HHS, said. “Can this place do innovation? Of course it can.”

When a few HHS employees returned to their day jobs after short stints at the Idea Lab, they weren’t always welcomed back with open arms. But Holland said there are more believers than skeptics.

“People are here at HHS because they believe in the mission, they want to serve their country and they want to have incredible impact, that’s why they came to the federal government in the first place,” Holman said. “And all we’re doing is rolling out a red carpet and saying ‘walk this way,’ and they always do.”

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