Promoting employee-powered solutions at HHS — The HHS IDEA Lab

4 min readJul 1, 2015

by Susannah Fox, Chief Technology Office, HHS

Last Wednesday, Secretary Burwell and Acting Deputy Secretary Wakefield announced the winners of this year’s HHS Innovates Awards. It was a celebration and a call to action.

In her remarks, the Secretary said, “innovation is about three key things: the people you have, how you are led, and how much you get it.” She raised poignant questions about our efforts to embed new behavior: Are our leaders finding ways to encourage innovation? How can we work together to prioritize innovation?

After the ceremony, Cristin Dorgelo, Chief of Staff at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and I led a discussion with the winning teams and leadership from their respective agencies. It focused on the barriers that teams overcame in order to pilot new approaches and the opportunities to foster an environment that promotes entrepreneurship and the creative testing of new ideas.

A key theme that emerged from the discussion was the continued need for culture change at HHS. While the HHS Innovates Awards program has played an important role in demonstrating Secretarial support for out-of-the-box solutions, we need to do more to change practices across the Operating Divisions if we are to truly build a culture of innovation as the Secretary has articulated.

A number of the participants suggested creating innovation hubs within our Operating Divisions, modeled on the IDEA Lab, and working with line management to better encourage innovation among staff. Other topics included the need to create protected space and time in which employees could test out new ideas. Already, the FDA has built a dedicated space for innovation called the Innovative Suite, which Operating Divisions could use as a model. Others in the room spoke about the importance of being able to connect with colleagues across the Department and to have better mechanisms for communicating across the silos that exist. This conversation resonated with my recent blog on the power of connection and nurturing a learning network across HHS.

The most recent HHS Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) results provide useful insights into our employees’ perception of how well we are doing on moving the needle of culture change at HHS. Over 90 percent of HHS employees stated that they are constantly looking for ways to do their job better. Yet, only 61 percent said they felt encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things, and only 42 percent felt that creativity and innovation are recognized. We want to see those numbers rise — and so does the Secretary.

Based on what we heard in the discussion, and our analysis of the EVS survey data, we propose several specific ideas to move our innovation agenda forward. To affect culture change in a meaningful way our efforts must be embedded into the fabric of the Department — from systems we use to allocate employees’ time, to information technology platforms we use to organize our daily activities and schedules, to mechanisms we use to measure and reward performance.

Inspired by this year’s HHS Innovates winners’ feedback, we propose:

  1. Each Operating Division explores new ways to embrace innovation and leadership should overtly demonstrate their commitment. We suggest including a way to credit managers who recognize and reward innovation.
  2. Each Operating Division considers creating a “creativity zone” — e.g., protected time for meritorious ideas that advance a key agency strategy. We’d like to see each Operating Division allow employees to submit proposals for solutions they’d like to test, and then provide protected time for those employees to test out their ideas. Private sector organizations, such as Google, use this method to promote creativity — and reap the benefits (Gmail began as a “20% time” project).
  3. Each Operating Division develops its own innovation awards programs focused on the needs of its agencies and stakeholders. Operating Divisions can model their innovation awards programs on the HHS Innovates Awards Program, or customize their innovation awards. The IDEA Lab will share its awards platform and help support your needs. Next year, we’d like each Operating Division to nominate its top innovation, which could be showcased to the Secretary and publicly announced.
  4. We plan to work with the White House to develop mechanisms to help innovators move more fluidly across the Department and outside of HHS. Exposure to new settings and new people is critical for idea generation. We need to figure out how to allow employees to gain valuable experiences outside of their home offices.
  5. Make open source development the default for how information technology projects are developed across HHS. Open source development is often less expensive, more flexible, and more closely attuned to stakeholder needs than proprietary development. While it may not be appropriate in every circumstance, the use of open source methods should be encouraged wherever possible.
  6. Address gaps in our calendar and email systems. A major barrier to cross-departmental collaboration is our inability to share calendars, schedule cross-agency meetings, or work virtually across the HHS network. Interoperability of information technology systems is a prerequisite for effective collaboration across Operating Divisions.
  7. Finally, we plan to re-invigorate the HHS Innovation Council to continue our discussions on barriers to innovation and the development of solutions to overcome these barriers. Each Operating Division would participate in the Council discussions, and would commit to piloting new solutions using the Council as a forum for sharing best practices and connecting across silos.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on these new directions, or your ideas for other topics we should consider pursuing in collaboration with our Operating Divisions. Drop us a line at, on Twitter (@HHSIDEALab), or on Yammer.

Originally published at on July 1, 2015.




We promote the use of innovation across the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to better enhance and protect the health & well-being of Americans.