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Collaboration and Innovation, Beyond Government Borders

How to start an innovation movement: Connect innovators with fellow innovators, and find more innovators to collaborate with. This idea underpins a new pilot from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which seeks to harness the power of collaboration among the public and government to better serve veterans.

Screen capture of the VA Innovators Network website.

Currently, eight VA centers around the United States are participating in the VA Innovators Network pilot. The pilot allows VA employees to propose and test ideas in a “test small, fail small” environment, with the goal of scaling successful solutions to the entire VA system.

“We’ve seen incredible ideas bubble from our VA employees about innovative opportunities to serve veterans,” said Andrea Ippolito, VA Innovators Network Lead.

However, the desire to connect innovators extends beyond the VA’s doors.

“There is a tremendous goodwill to serve veterans,” Ippolito said. “We need to do a better job matching employees with innovators [outside the government] and others willing to volunteer with veterans.”

Logo for Digital Gov's Open Opportunities program.

As the Network team looked to expand their innovation initiatives, they found the Open Opportunities platform. Open Opportunities helps agencies tap into expertise in all corners of the federal government while also providing professional development opportunities. Agencies post tasks and projects that are picked up by federal employees.

Although Open Opportunities is limited to the federal government, the platform’s code is open source. Ippolito recognized the potential of the platform and wanted to use it to help expand the VA’s reach to the public.

When Ippolito proposed the idea of adapting Open Opportunities code for a public-facing collaboration platform, one of her colleagues mentioned that she worked with a program to get HD Woodson High School students involved with STEM projects. Each summer, the students are assigned a project to work on, and the VA team recognized an opportunity for even more public collaboration: have high school students adapt the code and build the platform.

This summer, six of the students will work on the VA platform. They’ll meet weekly to work on the project and receive guidance and mentorship, and they’ll visit VA offices in DC. Ippolito hopes to release the first demo of the platform in August and to pilot the platform with the eight VA sites that are already participating in the VA Innovators Network.

Ippolito sees great potential for the platform as a conduit to connect the VA with great minds in the public space.

“We’re hoping to target retirees and the student population,” Ippolito said. “We see this as an opportunity for students to engage in projects and for retirees [whose talents] are not being leveraged. There is a sea of goodwill, there is a notion of service, and we want to harness that into passion.”

Ippolito noted that she’d already seen the power of government – public collaboration.

“In the Boston VA system, we have this incredible ENT surgeon who does head surgery,” Ippolito said. “After surgery, surgeons needed a way to tell if blood had perfused back into the skin. A lot of times this requires a team of nurses. The surgeon found out about a great technology from MIT (that had open source code) where you could use a camera on your iPhone to see if blood was perfusing back in. I happened to know the MIT professor, and I connected the VA surgeon with the professor. Now, that took a lot of magic – people knowing each other, etc. I thought, ‘there’s gotta be a better way to do this and a better way to connect people.’ This new platform will help curate collaboration with VA employees and members of the public who are excited to contribute in small and large ways to serve our nation’s veterans.”

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