In its ongoing aim for disruption, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has christened a new crop of accelerator projects that will soon innovate services across a gamut of departments.
The 2015 solutions are diverse. They improve data sharing, reimagine the epidemic prediction process, and even harness analytics and data visualizations to manage chronic health problems. With 12 in all — see the full list here — the projects stem from a fourth iteration of the HHS Ignite Accelerator, a program designed to inspire staff toward entrepreneurial and inventive problem solving.
Read Holman leads the initiative as the program director at the HHS IDEA Lab, a department innovation hub catering to a string of different enterprises. As part of the lab’s primary program, Holman said the accelerator is a driver for savvy invention while also serving as a hotbed for culture change.
“In the first round of Ignite, we had some really neat projects around 3D printing and micro-tasking platforms and hackathons,” Holman said. “But now we’re seeing more proposals submitted that want to address the core of how the office operates.”
The solutions aren’t necessarily about trendy tech, and ideas don't always encompass radical shifts in thought. More often they are simple, commonplace suggestions that impact services in sizable ways. Holman noted as an example the idea for a basic training curriculum called the “Training Contract Officer Representatives Effectively” project, or t-CORE. Despite its unglamorous title, the project applies just a touch of common sense to an otherwise colossal challenge.
Money talks — each year, more than $6 billion is awarded to public health-related contracts across HHS. But prior to the t-CORE project, HHS had no specific coursework to accompany the duties. Onboard instruction was all based on U.S. Department of Defense contracts, procurements that primarily focus on material purchases — planes, tanks, equipment, etc. — as opposed to HHS’ more service-oriented contracts.
“What’s particularly interesting — and I think this gets to a core component of what our accelerator is all about — is that the project team didn’t set out to explore [contract officer] training curriculum,” Holman said. “Their initial project had them building an internal website for staff to rate any and all trainings provided. A Yelp.com for government staff trainings.”
Through the iterative and user-centric process, Holman said that instead of opting for the flashier — yet not-so-effective — tech solution, the team found the real pain point. Now talks are underway for the training curriculum to be scaled out across the federal organization’s assemblage of internal agencies.
“We don’t know exactly what that will look like yet, but the potential impact is significant,” Holman said.
After a demo day for official feedback on April 28, many of 2015’s accelerator teams will go on to pilot ideas, form partnerships or scale projects with campaigns for added funding. Inside HHS, proven concepts may be potent enough to bid for a spot within the lab’s Ventures Fund, which this year totaled $325,000 for development — courtesy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
The CDC Health Game Jam is one such project. In 2013 the team behind the concept of the Game Jam event — essentially a gaming hackathon for health — developed it into an annual event through the accelerator and Ventures Fund. Now the group reports it has become the largest health gaming hackathon in the nation.
“What this team did was take the open innovation challenge approach and applied to the world of games, which hadn’t been done before at all in the federal government,” Holman said.
New Ventures Fund projects announced for 2015 include a crowdsourcing platform for health providers to apply drugs in new ways, a system that ties disaster preparedness with investment decisions, and an incredibly ambitious project to use smartphone cameras to detect malaria parasites in blood samples.
Going forward, Holman said the accelerator is spreading its influence, not only within HHS, but also for agencies across the federal government, such as the U.S. Department of Commerce and the General Services Administration, that are working to embed similar components into their own jurisdictions. It’s what Holman calls a “different community,” one that’s filled with program directors and staff who are experimenting with traditional service models.
“I think it’s safe to say that the projects we’re supporting now are fundamentally changing the way we work,” Holman said. “We’re not just supporting neat projects. We’re modernizing the core machinery of government."
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.