Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell arrives for a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington last week. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The spirit of the hit show "Shark Tank" descended upon the Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday. In a packed room on the penthouse floor of the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters, 11 employee teams from all over the country were given four minutes to pitch their best ideas, followed by five minutes of critique from senior officials drawn from the health department's many branches.

But the biggest meta idea on the table was this: How do you incentivize government employees to innovate, especially in an agency as sprawling as the 90,000-worker Department of Health and Human Services?

Sameer Antani, a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health, tried selling the sharks on software that rides along on the tuberculosis screening trucks that now patrol Kenya; the program's trick is that it can instantly assess whether patients should seek out a fully-equipped hospital or should just head home by using a simple color code. "Green means this person is good to go," said Antani. He was there to ask for institutional support getting the program picked up widely, including throughout rural America.*

"Has this been approved by the FDA?" asked one shark, Taha Kass-Hout. When he's not judging contests, Kass-Hout happens to serve as the chief information officer at the Food and Drug Administration. "No!" said Antani, brimming with enthusiasm. That prompted Kass-Hout to give his sister-agency colleague advice for navigating that sometimes complex approval process.

Under the banner of HHS Ignite, the 11 teams had been seeded with $5,000 dollars each, meant to get their ideas off the ground. In a three-month bootcamp, they were trained in ideas more familiar in Silicon Valley: bootstrapping a prototype, focus grouping, and following user-centric design principles. On Tuesday, considerably more money was the table -- the teams are eligible for $50,000 from HHS's IDEA Labs Venture Fund. But also on offer was help polishing the idea before the employees attempt to sell it to their bosses, and their bosses' bosses, inside their home agency.

Other presentations included the creation of a searchable database for genetic variables currently locked inside a 40-page PDF document, the building of a dashboard for coordinating public outreach around the federal online health insurance marketplaces, and the perfection of something called the Global Ingredient Archival System, presented as sort of a periodic table for medical product ingredients.

Erica Reott works in project management at the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reott, perhaps without knowing it, made the case in her presentation for why the intra-departmental pitch contest exists. She asked: "Is there something about CDC culture holding the agency back from smart risk-taking?" She asked for support for four full-time staffers to fully pilot an in-agency Open Idea Lab, which she and colleagues had begun as a side project. "I don't think our brains will go back to their normal shapes" said Reott about making it through the bootcamp thus far, "but we will go back to our normal jobs."

The funding is one thing, but also driving HHS Ignite is the appeal of giving those toiling away along the hallways of government the sense that there is a creative path ahead of them -- in short, that you can be an entrepreneur on the federal payroll.

HHS Ignite is a project of the HHS Idea Lab, which was started about a year ago as part of a rebranding of the department's chief technology office to emphasize that the agency, still smarting from's difficulties, is in the business of innovation.

Update: This paragraph has been updated to clarify where the software-equipped tuberculous screening trucks are currently operating and where Dr. Antani hopes to spread the technology. 


Have more to say about this topic? Join us today for our weekly Friday live chat, Switchback. We'll kick things off at 11 a.m. Eastern time. You can submit your questions now, right here.