Presidential Innovation Fellows Get Private and Public Sectors to Collaborate

The Presidential Innovation Fellows program combines the mass of the federal government with the velocity of cutting-edge innovators. What’s been accomplished since the program launched?

by / June 10, 2013
Steve VanRoekel, Federal CIO

When the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program launched last summer, it elicited a great deal of interest from both the public and private sectors. The unique initiative represents the first time the federal government has asked for help from the private sector in such a specific way and provided a vehicle to accomplish it.

Created under the direction of President Barack Obama and his administration, the PIF program’s overarching goal is to improve how the federal government serves the public. It does so by pairing innovators from the private sector, nonprofits and academia with innovators in government to collaborate on key programs.

“The Presidential Innovation Fellows program presents a transformational opportunity to bring outside talent into the federal government,” said Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel.

But the projects launched under PIF won’t be the typical drawn out, multiyear government endeavors. Instead, PIF was designed to bring programs to a point where they can deliver significant results in just six months.

In spring 2012, nearly 700 innovators from across the country applied to the program. Of those, just 18 were selected as fellows based on their skill sets and relevance to the challenges. Those chosen also included cross-sector teams of innovators adept at rapidly prototyping and testing solutions in an iterative way to achieve speedy success. The 18 presidential fellows were hired directly by the federal agency sponsoring their given PIF project.

“These private-sector innovators bring their entrepreneurial expertise to the table that has helped jump-start high-tech companies, increase efficiency and public engagement, and redefine how technology is used in business,” said Federal CTO Todd Park.

Each fellow agreed to spend six months in Washington, D.C., to work on one of five high-impact projects. The projects selected represent tough but tractable challenges whose solutions can provide immediate benefits and cost-savings to citizens, entrepreneurs and businesses. The projects also were required to be impactful, with the potential to save lives, save taxpayer money or fuel American job growth.

On Feb. 5, 2013, PIF was formally renewed and expanded, and round two of the program was announced. Public CIO wanted to know what’s happened to the original projects since the program launched last summer. The following is an update on three of the original five projects.

Most U.S. citizens don’t have easy access to their health records. But the Blue Button for America project aims to change that by allowing anyone to easily and securely download their health information electronically.

Blue Button for America builds on the success of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Blue Button program. The VA — working with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Defense Department and others — developed Blue Button to let veterans, service members and Medicare beneficiaries securely download their health information via a simple text file. The file includes information such as current medications and drug allergies, claims and treatment data, and lab reports. The goal of the Blue Button for America project is to extend the Blue Button program to all Americans.

“Our goal with this project is to allow every American access to their health records digitally in a safe and secure way,” said Ryan Panchadsaram, a PIF member and founder of Pipette, a San Francisco-based company that developed a remote health monitoring platform and was recently acquired by “By developing tools to help individuals utilize their own health records, we hope to empower them to improve their health and health care.”

Photo: Innovation fellows are working with the U.S. Department of Education to figure out how open data can improve student achievement. Photo by Paul Williams

Panchadsaram is one of three fellows assigned to the Blue Button for America project. The team is working with the CTO of Veterans Affairs as well as with members of the health-care community to devise a data standard that will allow traditionally siloed health-care data to begin to flow in a structured way. Last fall, the Blue Button for America innovation fellows worked on redesigning patient health records, which typically are difficult to understand. Using a crowdsourcing model, the fellows asked 240 designers to reimagine what a health record could look like. Twelve designs were chosen as finalists. Soon, the team will pick one design to serve as the basis for a new human-readable, open medical record.

“From a patient perspective, this is a way to consolidate all your medical history,” Panchadsaram said. “And it will help patients coordinate care better. Access to records can help caregivers guide their loved ones through their health issues, and maybe even catch medical errors before the doctor does. Finally, it will help people better manage their health expenses.”

Many of the best technology companies in the U.S. view the process of selling to the federal government as too long and complex. The result is bad for both the government and the companies, which potentially miss out on large federal opportunities. The RFP-EZ team is building a streamlined prototype that would provide easier access to the government marketplace for high-growth startups. RFP-EZ is sponsored by the Small Business Administration.

“This project is an experiment,” said Clay Johnson, PIF member, author, open government technologist and entrepreneur. “We are building a platform that makes it easier for small businesses to navigate the federal government, and enables federal agencies to quickly source low-cost, high- impact IT solutions. Can we break the language barrier between government and small businesses so they speak same language at the same time? Can we simplify the bidding process so smaller companies can afford to bid? These are the questions we are asking.”

RFP-EZ launched the new platform in January. More than 200 businesses signed up almost immediately, and nearly 50 percent of those companies were new to government contracting.

“I have seen firsthand the difference between what government pays and what the private sector pays for the same thing,” Johnson said. “It’s a complicated problem. RFP-EZ has the ability to empower a network of small businesses to serve their country and at the same time allow government to be more flexible and nimble when it comes to procuring the newest technology systems at the best prices.”

A second phase of RFP-EZ now under way aims to improve federal procurement by building a portal that shows prices paid by agencies under their contracts. The sharing of pricing information, both within and between agencies, should cut costs and deliver better products and services to the federal government, according to those involved in the project. If the pricing information prompts agencies to shift their purchasing to contracting vehicles that offer better value, the program could save substantial amounts of money each year.

“We hope to also make it a thousand times easier to run a federal procurement,” Johnson said. “Right now, procurement officers are doing a lot of low-value work that can be done by computers. We want to make the process more automated and shift federal procurement workers toward more high-value work like price negotiation.”

The RFP-EZ experiment has been successful so far. “We got our first bid within 30 minutes of launching the site,” Johnson said. “In the end, we are developing a soup-to-nuts procurement system that can have an impact far beyond the federal government. We are pretty excited about its potential.”

The Open Data Initiatives program aims to “liberate” government data and voluntarily contributed corporate data in order to improve the lives of Americans. The program models the Health Data Initiative, launched by the Institute of Medicine and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2010. The Health Data Initiative opened health-related knowledge and information from the vaults of the government and made it available to the public in computer-readable form. Since then, hundreds of companies and nonprofits have used the information to develop new products and services that help Americans make smarter or more economical health-care decisions.

Working closely with the federal CTO and an array of agencies, the Open Data Initiatives team is expanding the Health Data Initiative, and rolling out similar efforts in the energy, education, public safety and nonprofit sectors.

Innovation Fellow Marina Martin leads the Educational Data Initiative being run from the U.S. Department of Education. “The goal of the project is to figure out how data can help students achieve their goals, particularly in light of the Common Core standards,” Martin said. “We want to see all parents and students have access to their own educational data in a machine-readable, standard format. That data can reveal how a student best learns math, for example. We believe having access to that data and having it be interoperable can help students get the most effective learning experience.”

Among other things, the Educational Data Initiative is examining an Arizona State University program called Knewton Math Readiness. The Web-based, professor-assisted course teaches students basic math skills. The platform delivers individualized learning content based on student proficiency and continually assesses, remediates and reassesses student progress.

“These types of programs can help students determine what time of day they learn math best, for example,” Martin said. “It knows if you are guessing or what helped you get unstuck. We are watching and learning from these types of programs to determine how they can be applied on a broad scale to improve the process of teaching our students.”

As the second round of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program gets under way, Park and VanRoekel praised the progress so far.

“Throughout the federal government, in every agency where fellows have been working, we’ve been thrilled to see the exciting advances they’ve been achieving in concert with their government teammates,” they said in a Feb. 5 blog post. “We are excited to announce that the program is extending and expanding — and that we are ready to welcome applications for our next round of Presidential Innovation Fellows.”


Photo: Steve VanRoekel, Federal CIO

Justine Brown Contributing Writer