"The government was caught flat-footed when the Internet came along," says Susannah Fox, the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) first female CTO.
But if Fox has anything to do with it, the White House won't miss the next approaching wave: Hardware.
This week, HHS is launching an initiative called "Invent Health" to bring resources, such as training and talent, to medical hardware entrepreneurs. The initiative will be run within HHS's Idea Lab, which recruits top talent from the private sector to help incorporate modern technologies inside government agencies. Idea Lab has already had some successes, including an effort to modernize the organ donation tracking system by bringing in a logistics expert from UPS.
The hardware initiative is still a bit vague in its scope. At this point, Fox is calling it an "online space where people within government and citizens can share ideas." In the coming months, she'll start connecting federal agencies with hardware needs—like NASA, the CDC, and NIH—with top talent from Silicon Valley.
"We have to find ways for the federal government to take chances on things," says Fox. She described Idea Lab as helping facilitate "small, high impact pilots" that can be injected back into the White House bureaucracy. One example of a pilot project might be to help NASA develop medical devices for low-resource settings, like the International Space Station, or to support the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) create new prosthetics for wounded veterans.
Bringing the maker movement to the White House might seem like a tall order for HHS, the agency that is best known for the Healthcare.gov debacle. But Fox says the agency is now committed to design thinking and "lean startup" methods, which are routinely used by Silicon Valley's top startups.
Invent Health will hold its first meeting in Washington, D.C. on January 28, 2016, which will be followed by a series of regional events across the country.