McKinsey Quarterly

Unleashing government's 'innovation mojo': An interview with the US chief technology officer

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Today, innovation is almost always supported—if not driven—by technology. No stranger to this rule is Todd Park, who in March ended a three-year stint as chief technology officer (CTO) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take on the role of CTO of the United States. In this interview—part of a series of articles from McKinsey’s public-sector practice—Park explains how he has tried to find creative ways to use IT and data to benefit the public. Among his achievements at HHS were the launch of programs such as the consumer Web site and the Health Data Initiative, which encourages the development of innovative applications using publicly available government data. McKinsey’s Eric Braverman and Michael Chui recently met with Park in Washington, DC, and asked him about his plans for accelerating innovation in the US government.

McKinsey: Innovation is a big part of your new role. But some would say the US government is not known for innovation—and we’re in an election year, which may be a difficult time to get things done. Do you see innovative things happening in the government right now?

Todd Park: There’s an extraordinary amount of innovation happening in the US government, and I’d say the single biggest driver is that the government is embracing the idea of open innovation—unleashing the power of the private sector, the academic sector, the nonprofit sector, and the public in general to get a lot more done than if the government tried to do everything itself. There’s a rapidly growing array of stories we can tell along those lines.

One story is the Health Data Initiative, which I was fortunate enough to cofound in 2010 with a team at HHS and the Institute of Medicine. We wanted to emulate what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had done with weather data: making it available in downloadable, machine-readable form, which led to all kinds of products and services—weather Web sites, weather apps, weather insurance—that have benefited the American people and contributed to economic growth and jobs.

There’s a lot of data in the vaults of HHS and its sister agencies—data on everything from the health of our communities, to the quality of our health care providers, to information about drugs, to Medicare claims data. The idea was to do three things: first, make data available that’s never been made available before, either to the public or to qualified entities, all while rigorously protecting privacy.

Second, put out data in forms that are usable for developers. A lot of the data that HHS had made publicly available was in the form of books, PDFs, or static Web sites; we had to turn it into liquid, machine-readable data that could be accessible via application-programming interfaces.

Third, educate entrepreneurs and innovators that the data exist and are accessible. To do this, we used tactics that were relatively unconventional for the government: code-a-thons, meet-ups, and gatherings called “Datapaloozas” that we began hosting in 2010.

McKinsey: You used the term “liquid data,” which presumably means downloadable data that can be used by third parties. What are some examples of data that are publicly available but not liquid?

Todd Park: Here’s a good example: at HHS we had an online directory of all the community clinics in America. You could go to the Web site and put in your zip code and pull up an HTML page listing the community clinics in your area. Third-party developers could, in theory, write a crawler [program] to extract and scrape that data—but any of us who’ve actually built crawlers know we do not want to use them for mission-critical activity. So we made the data available in a downloadable file, and now third-party developers can upload that data into their platforms.

There’s a mobile and Web app called iTriage, for example, that lets you enter your symptoms, then it identifies the best local provider and helps you book an appointment with that provider. iTriage uploaded our directory of community clinics, and within a year 115,000 Americans got connected to community clinics through iTriage.

McKinsey: A lot of what you’ve just described involves changing the behavior of government and of citizens. What were some of the most successful techniques and incentives you used to do that?

Todd Park: I think the Datapaloozas were key. The approach we took at HHS was to convene a group of 40 leading minds in the technology and health care arenas, and we put a pile of data in the room and said, “If you had this data, what would you do with it?”

Over the course of about eight hours, they brainstormed different applications and services. At the end of the meeting, we challenged them to come to the first Health Datapalooza—90 days later—and see if they could actually build what they had just brainstormed. The two criteria for products and services at Datapaloozas are that they must provide concrete value and have a sustainable business model; the Datapalooza is not meant to showcase stuff that’s purely academic or theoretical. Well, these innovators showed up 90 days later with more than 20 brand-new or upgraded products and services.

The Datapalooza had two important effects. One, it inspired entrepreneurs and innovators to get involved. Two, it gave us ammunition to liberate more data. Some folks within the government were adopting a “wait and see” attitude about data liberation. They weren’t ideologically opposed—it’s just that they said, “We’ve got a lot to do, so why should we invest in this?” We invited them to the Datapalooza, and when they saw that in 90 days these amazing innovators had taken open data and turned it into fully functional new products and services to advance their mission, they were blown away.