Developing ‘the ability to connect’: An interview with Peter Levin of the Department of Veterans Affairs
By Tom Fox,
Peter L. Levin was appointed chief technology officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and senior adviser to Secretary Eric Shinseki in May 2009. He leads the Blue Button personal health record initiative and the open source custodial agent for health record modernization, and co-leads the homeless services Web application “Project REACH,” a contest run by the VA Innovation Initiative . Levin led the implementation of VA’s social media outreach and employee innovation competitions; he helped launch VA’s suicide prevention chat line and virtual lifetime electronic record’s (VLER) first clinical deployment in San Diego. Levin spoke about his career and leadership lessons with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.
What are some key management techniques you use at the VA?
I’ve tried to create an environment that engenders collaboration and risk taking, with a clear emphasis on outcomes. I catalyze conversations that allow us to better define measurable goals, and help break through institutional barriers. Occasionally that leads to an awkward conversation, but I always make sure that we have it anyway, and not pretend that it doesn’t matter. In fact, those are the most important meetings of all.
Tell me more about how you facilitate those difficult conversations.
I bring to the table an emotional accessibility — which people don’t talk about very much, but in my heart I believe that it is keen and essential. My job is to create an environment that allows them to be productive, impactful and to have as much fun as we can. I want them to know they can tell me exactly what they think and they are not going to get in trouble if they are wrong. I have an open door, I have a box of Kleenex and I can buy anybody coffee anytime. People around me know that. At first, my style wasn’t what they were used to, but it certainly is one that they’ve come to enjoy, because they now know that it’s sincere and authentic and effective.
What does it take to innovate in government?
Key traits are passion, enthusiasm, the ability to articulate a problem or a solution really well and the ability to cooperate. There are people in life, government and academia who don’t trust or believe in the benefit of collaboration. However, the ability to connect is an absolutely crucial attribute of people who are successful in government. It really doesn’t matter if you care passionately about something, you understand the issues well and maybe even “know the answer,” if for some reason you can’t make that connection to someone who wants to be helpful. The ability to authentically connect is really the most important and precious attribute.
Could you share some innovative programs you are most proud of in the department?
We created the Blue Button initiative, an online personal health record that allows patients to control and have access to their information at any time. It contains the kinds of information that you would fill out when you go to see a clinical provider: what medicines you are taking, what you are allergic to and other details of a patient’s health history. Between the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, we are just under 900,000 users in just over a year and a half.
We are currently running a contest to create a mobile application for Web-enabled homeless services. This contest is designed to create a simple, convenient and reliable mechanism for the individuals who work in food banks or food kitchens. It points them to clinical services or shelter that their clients may need to help them address chronic care needs and break the cycle of homelessness.
And, of course, the suicide prevention chat line has had 6,000 interventions in three years.
Who are your role models or mentors?
Voyce Whitley has been one of my most important mentors. He has always been essential in helping me match the things that I enjoy and do well to opportunities in public service, where he himself spent his career. Jim Hogan has been an irreplaceable role model to me. He’s a highly successful inventor, entrepreneur and business leader and taught me an enormous amount about creating the assets that allow you to be influential in unconventional ways. Finally, VA Deputy Secretary Scott Gould has taught me so much about collaborative leadership and bringing together a wide diversity of individuals. He’s also taught me a lot about finding common points of agreement and being held accountable for execution and outcomes.
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