Innovators: CTO Bryan Sivak gives Health and Human Services an entrepreneurial infusion


Bryan Sivak. (Illustration by Lennart Andresen/Illustration by Lennart Andresen)

When Bryan Sivak joined then D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration as chief technology officer, he was fresh from building his own business. Five years later, Sivak has become something of a government-embedded entrepreneur. He left the District to become Maryland’s first chief innovation officer in 2011. He is now chief technology officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. There, he manages the IDEA Lab, a series of programs that reward innovation, bring private sector leaders into the agency, and provide employees with time and money to pursue ideas. The effort aims to infuse a sense of entre­pre­neur­ship in the risk-adverse temperament of government.

What are your responsibilities as chief technology officer?

■ Basically I’m responsible here for executing on the department’s innovation agenda. That includes a number of different things. It includes this idea of challenging the bureaucracy to escape the status quo and think about how we can accomplish our tasks in new and innovative ways.

Really the ultimate goal of what we’re trying to do is create a more modern and effective government. When you look across HHS, we have approximately 90,000 full-time employees and then contractors. These people are highly intelligent and motivated for the right reasons, but in many cases the bureaucracy prevents them from executing on things in innovative and modern ways.

How do you define innovation?

■ I kind of hate the word innovation because everyone uses it nowadays and it doesn’t really mean anything. So we’ve defined innovation as a direct result of the freedom to experiment. I’m creating freedom for experimentation. We’re essentially giving people the permission to fail because by definition experiments can be successful or unsuccessful.

Most importantly, we believe in actually just doing things. Too much time is spent in government thinking about having a meeting or planning to have a plan. We would much rather just try stuff. We believe in action very, very strongly.

What is the goal behind the IDEA (Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship and Action) Lab?

■ The ultimate goal is to create a more modern and effective government. The effort itself is centered around three core beliefs:

Any individual, inside or outside the department, has the ability to positively affect the health and well-being of any American.

We believe people are much stronger when working together.

There is a solution to every problem.

I have yet to find in my five years in government an intractable problem, one that can’t be solved. You just have to be creative in how you solve them.

How did IDEA Lab come about?

■ Many of the pathways and programs are things that have been happening for a while. The IDEA Lab as an entity is about six months old at this point. The main reason we did it is because if you want something to sustain in a bureaucracy, you have to make it part of the bureaucracy to begin with. I’m always thinking toward the future from a sustainability perspective, and if I were to walk out of this building and get hit by a bus tomorrow, there’s no guarantee this would continue. If you really believe that this kind of change is necessary for an institution like ours, then you have to think about how you can get these concepts to really be sticky.

Does it strike you as counterintuitive that the solution to bureaucracy lies in bureaucracy?

■ It is totally counterintuitive in a certain respect, but it’s also the only way you’ll get something like this to stick. You have to use the bureaucracy to your advantage. If you try to take it on head first, you’ll lose every time. It’s a massive and tropic force.

Describe a problem you have solved through IDEA Lab.

■ HHS Entrepreneurs is a program where people across the department propose problems that are big problems they need to solve or ideas they want to execute on but they don’t have the experience internally to do it. We reach out to the outside world and recruit people to come in for no more than 12 months. We limit it for 12 months because if you’re only here for a certain period of time, you have to do things differently.

One of the projects from the first round was around clinical quality metrics. There’s no transparency around cost or quality. When you go to a doctor, you have no idea what it’s going to cost you, and you don’t have a clear idea of how quality that doctor is from a pure data perspective. There’s a whole process we go through to define these algorithms and typically it takes about three to five years to develop a single metric for quality. We recruited Mindy Hangsleben, an expert in lean methodology, from Intel. The results were kind of remarkable. She managed to bring down the time to three to five months.

IDEA Lab allows employees to spend several months on innovative projects. Can you provide an example of a project that was successful?

■ We solicit project ideas from the department and the ones that are selected have three months to executive on their ideas. It’s very much like a Silicon Valley accelerator. It was kind of amazing. Every one of the teams went through a pivot at some point, and at the end, had some great example of their work.

The Administration for Children and Families manages state-based child welfare programs. This team at ACF said we have all this data and all these visualization tools out there, why don’t we build an effective dashboard for these programs? They built this gorgeous dashboard with the state agencies themselves and created something for the first time ever that’s engaging states to manage their child welfare programs in an effective way. As an example, for the first time, users can break performance down by child characteristics, such as age, sex, and race/ethnicity, which allows analysis around particular areas of strength or weakness. If you can make these programs work better you’re literally saving kid’s lives. That’s a great example.

Meet “Innovators,” a biweekly series showcasing interesting ideas from people around the Washington area who work in business, technology and policy. Know someone with an idea or innovation worth sharing? Tell us about them at steven.overly@washpost.com

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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