(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Susannah Fox, the chief technology officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, was the entrepreneur-in-residence at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and also served as the associate director of the Internet Project at the Pew Research Center. She arrived at HHS as the initial healthcare.gov issues were being resolved, and her mandate has been to lead other innovations within the agency.

In an interview, Fox discussed those efforts to encourage innovation, including use of the IDEA Lab, an initiative for workers inside and outside of the department to explore unconventional solutions for problems in health and health care.

Fox spoke with Tom Fox (no relation!), a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Tell me about trying to create an entrepreneurial spirit at HHS through IDEA Lab.

A. The essential ingredient of IDEA Lab is to open as many doors as we can to people outside the government who might want to contribute their expertise, whether it’s through a short-term engagement like a prize competition or a longer-term engagement like coming in for a tour of duty as an entrepreneur-in-residence.

The other half of the story is recognizing the entrepreneurial spirit that is sometimes buried deep in the hierarchy in a federal agency. We try to recognize people who are doing out-of-the-box thinking and taking action to create change. We try to give people a chance to test ideas. It is a way to give them a little bit of space, a little bit of time, some air cover and a chance to ask questions.

Q.  How are you using data to improve the way HHS works?

Susannah Fox, photo by Chris Smith, HHS Photographer Susannah Fox, photo by Chris Smith, HHS Photographer

A. The chief technology officer is in a lot of ways also the chief innovation officer and the chief ambassador to the outside tech community. I’ve been recruiting data scientists to work at the Food and Drug Administration to address how we’re going to use big data to improve the discovery of new pathways for cancer treatment, for example, and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help upgrade the national disease surveillance system.

Q. Which particular technology projects do you feel have made or will make a big difference?

A. One of our entrepreneurs-in-residence has been tasked with looking at the organ donation tracking system. The Health Resources and Services Administration came to us and said, "We’ve got this analog system where clinicians involved in organ procurement are writing the shipping labels by hand."

We found a 10-year veteran of UPS who is an expert in logistics and package tracking, and he came in and created a prototype within four months of a handheld printer and scanner. This is being rolled out across the country and revolutionizing the organ donation tracking system.

Q. You have said you want to shine a spotlight on the role citizens play in strengthening their own health care. What do you envision?

A. I had done 15 years of research and field work following patients and caregivers, and that often meant learning how people who live with life-changing diagnoses and rare diseases use technology to crowd source their way to a diagnosis and find treatments that work.

We now have more access to information, thanks to my colleagues in the federal government who created PubMed and ClinicalTrials.gov. Coming into this role, I shared Secretary Sylvia Burwell’s interest in creating a way for engaged and empowered individuals to make the best decisions for their health care. We want to identify barriers that prevent people from getting information that could help them make those decisions

At the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine, we are making more medical journal articles available to the public. People should have access to industrial strength information, whether it’s about a new clinical trial or a new treatment or about making the best decision regarding health insurance.

Q. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your experience in government?

A. If you can create space where outside ideas can meet those people inside the federal government who know how the machinery works, that’s going to be the best path towards change and innovation.

It’s all well and good to have these wonderful ideas from people who parachute in from the outside, but you also need to involve the people who already have dedicated their lives to public service, who really understand the way an agency works, or really understand the way that citizens in a certain region need health care or services delivered. That’s the way we are going to see real change.

Q. What is something people would be surprised to know about you?

A. I played rugby in college. I grew up pretty rough and tumble, playing no-holds-barred tackle football with my brother and cousins. I broke my nose playing rugby in college.

Q. If I were to talk to people who know you well, what would they say about you?

A. I don’t shy away from acknowledging the emotional aspects of the work that we do. We touch the lives of Americans from birth all the way to death, and we deal with pretty heavy issues regarding refugees and human trafficking. What we’re trying to do is deliver service to people in need. Empathy is at the core of my work. I think this gives other people permission to do the same.

I also like to give people who work for me as much freedom as possible. I believe that you hire the best people you can and then let them run, experiment, try new things and give them support and air cover to get their work done.

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