October 4, 2012 By Sarah Rich
SAN FRANCISCO — There has been much discussion in government recently about the concept of bringing a private-sector mentality to government, an idea that conceivably could foster more innovation and flexibility than in the past. The idea was the subject of a recent and popular Public CIO magazine story called Startup.gov, in which Government Technology’s sister publication interviewed public officials who mused about the possibility of government emulating Silicon Valley’s business culture.
The topic has been on the mind of federal CTO Todd Park. When earlier this year President Obama tapped Park — the former CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — to be the nation’s chief technologist, the choice was widely lauded in large part due to Park’s reputation for cultivating innovation in the public sector despite the perceived built-in obstacles.
Indeed, Park had been known for his entrepreneurial spirit long before he joined government, back to the days when he co-founded two health IT companies: Athenahealth in 1997 and Castlight Health in 2008. Park also spent a part of his career as a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton.
So what is Park’s recipe for successfully introducing private-sector ideas to government? He shared three core principles during a talk with Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media, at the Code for America Summit on Tuesday, Oct. 2, in San Francisco.
Park said that based on his own experiences working in private sector, if he had an idea that could drive innovation, the first thing he would do is take his idea to the three to five people who had the idea a long time ago — individuals who might be more knowledgeable about executing the idea. By putting a team together to work on the idea, it would give those people a chance to work on something they’ve always wanted to.
“If you get the best people, you win,” Park said. “And if you don’t, it just becomes a lot more difficult.”
Although the public sector is by no means a startup company, Park said government leaders should embrace the idea of the lean startup. It’s important, he said, to recognize that strategy, operations and tech are all different facets of essentially the same goal. Government leaders should consider having an interdisciplinary team to focus on problem solving, while also engaging smaller too in order to handle various disciplines. This helps to get the customer engaged, Park said.
According to Park, open data is key to orchestrating innovation. But proper steps should be taken to deal with data. He said it’s important to release an initial data set that’s going to be useful to the consumer. In government, this means the equivalent is releasing data that’s useful to the public.
When Park worked for the HHS, the department took a similar approach. “And the whole idea there was unleash the power of data to spur entrepreneurship and innovation,” Park said. “Liberate data from the vaults of the government as a platform for entrepreneur innovation.”
To get started, Park said he and the department had to determine what data they had that’s really useful to the public. They then chose the initial data sets they would make available — and make more usable — for the public’s benefit.
As a result, the department looked at various data sets such as hospital quality data, directories of the locations of health-care providers and after conversation with entrepreneurs had their first data-palooza, which spurred ideas and applications from there.
When the HHS announced its open data program, Park said they were able to show use cases that helped convince other government leaders to liberate data.
“We were not just engaging entrepreneurs … but also people inside government to try to make them release more data,” Park said.
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