Summary:

Government agencies will never be as nimble as a Silicon Valley startup, but, at SXSW, Bryan Sivak, CTO of the Dept. of Health and Human Services, describes how the tech world is influencing his agency.

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Government agencies aren’t known for their efficiency, inspiring work spaces or willingness to experiment. (If you’ve ever lived in Washington, DC, you know they can be the exact opposite.)

But, last year, Bryan Sivak, the CTO and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Department of Health and Human Services, was tapped to bring more Silicon Valley spirit to the massive department. (Prior to working in government, he founded a company that was acquired by Oracle). And it looks like his touch is starting to move the agency further along a startup-inspired track.

At the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin on Saturday, Sivak said he’s tried to promote a definition of innovation that gives people the “freedom to experiment.”

“I can teach you how to experiment. I can teach you how to develop a hypothesis. I can teach you how to define some tests that generate some metrics. I can teach you how to analyze those metrics to determine whether or not your test was successful and I can give you the freedom to execute some of these things,” he said. “This is something that’s critical for an entity like the federal government, which is very bureaucratic and structured and all the things we wish it wasn’t in a lot of cases.”

Sivak isn’t the first to bring lean startup theory to HHS. Sivak’s predecessor Todd Park, co-founder of health tech giants Athenahealth and Castlight and current CTO of the United States, drew on his tech chops to start opening up health data and transforming health care. But here a few of the more recent Silicon Valley-style programs at HHS.

Yammer-powered social networking

Getting 90,000 government employees to collaborate is obviously no easy task. But using Yammer, HHS employees across the department now have the opportunity to share ideas and reach out to people up and down the bureaucratic hierarchy through HHSConnect.  Since launching a few months ago, 10,000 of the department’s employees have used the platform with many using it actively, said Sivak.

Open coworking spaces

Like many startup CEOs, Sivak said he believes in the “serendipitous collisions” that happen between coworkers who work in open spaces. But in government cubicles, he said, “the only thing you’re going to collide with is air.”  To up the chances of serendipitous in-person collaboration, the department is creating “HHSLabs” – an open, modular, technologically-tricked out work space open to anyone in the agency.  It’s also opening its doors to health startup CEOs and other private sector visitors to DC who want a temporary place to work.

Internal crowdfunding for resources

To support entrepreneurial-minded people at HHS who come up with interesting ideas but need people with other skills or resources to get their projects off the ground, Sivak said they’ve created an internal crowdfunding-like site where people can solicit support. Called “HHSFairtrade,” people can post descriptions of their ideas and others across the department can commit needed resources or support. Like Kickstarter, the project only activates once it receives all of the commitments it needs to launch.

Seed funding for internal innovators

If it’s a little bit of cash that internal innovators need to test their ideas, Sivak said they can turn to “HHSIgnite.” The program gives department employees small amounts of money to try out new approaches. If the project can show returns in three to six months, he said, it can become a stronger candidate for allocated funds.

Opening the door to outside entrepreneurs

More technologists like Park and Sivak are bringing a startup mindset to the public sector, but Sivak knows that many of the country’s most innovative thinkers don’t live inside the Beltway. To tap into their ideas, he said, the department created “HHS Entrepreneurs,”a new program based on the HHS Innovation Fellows program launched last year. One track invites HHS employees to apply to be “internal entrepreneurs” who will work on special team and get extra networking, mentoring and professional development opportunities. But the other track is open to entrepreneurs around the country who would come to HHS to work with internal entrepreneurs for 6 to 12 months on “high risk, high reward” problems, Sivak said.

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