To address the challenges in healthcare today, more innovation then ever is needed along with fresh ways of thinking, a top public health IT official said Monday, and there is a real potential for the government to be a “positive force” in this change.

Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer for the Department of Health and Human Services admitted at HIMSS15 in Chicago that the idea of government as an agent for change might not be the first thing in people’s minds. Yet, he said HHS can really drive change in positive ways.

Also See: First CMS Chief Data Officer Lays Out Vision, Priorities

Looking back at his three years at HHS, Sivak—who announced at the end of March that he will leave government service on April 30—said one of the main things he learned is that innovative government is not an oxymoron. “Government can be the punch line of many jokes,” he said. “But there is a true spirit of innovation that lurks behind the walls.”

To help with that innovation, Sivak said he achieved three main goals while at his post:

*Taking advantage of the 90,000 HHS employees;

*Finding people with skills to fill gaps that come up and having them work for a limited basis; and

*Breaking down reinforced silos within HHS, “not just between departments but even within them,” Sivak said.

The Data

For Sivak, data is the “ingredient that [can] change anything.” When he came to HHS, he said people held onto data and “horde[d] it for their own purposes.”

As an experiment, HHS took 30 data sets the department thought would be interesting and issued a challenge to 45 people to see if they could build anything with that data. Thirty days later, HHS was presented with 24 brand new applications. While Sivak said some were great and some not so great, “we realized at that moment, this [data] has some use.”

This launched a datapalooza from HHS and the sixth session is set to take place in Washington in early June. So far, 2,500 people have registered.

“The default setting used to be, this was my data,” Sivak said. “That has fundamentally changed.”

He reminded the audience that CMS recently installed a chief data officer and HHS’ Office of the Inspector General also has a chief data office, which is fascinating to Sivak. In a part of HHS which they rarely talk to, OIG came and asked for advice. “It’s fantastic this stuff is getting out there,” he said.

Sivak also stressed data will continue to be made publicly available. “The continued availability of data,” he said, “these are things in my opinion that will be a fundamental catalyst that reshapes healthcare in this country.”

He teased that a brand new dataset will be released in two weeks. While Sivak would not provide any specifics, he said it will be “fundamentally game changing.”

The People

For Sivak, the biggest lesson he learned in his years in public service is that “government isn’t a thing, it’s people.” Many people look at government as this big monolithic object, he said, and that was what friends told him when he first left his software job to work in public service.

But he now believes that “I work with the smartest, most interested, most dedicated people in my [life.] They are not there to make money…they are there because they care.”

To that end, Sivak said it “does not make sense to point at government ad say government is the problem.”

“I had the honor to serve the American people for six years and the opportunity to meet some incredible people,” he added. “I also saw some craziness that a large organization can bring to the table. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences for anything.”

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