In mid-2010, the already frenetic Todd Park was in overdrive. President Obama had just signed the Affordable Care Act into law, the most significant reform of the American health care system since Medicare. It was Park’s job to figure out how government could use technology to make the law’s implementation as smooth and fruitful as possible.
As the Health and Human Services Department’s first chief technology officer, Park had a broad mandate but not a lot of staff. The idea behind the new position, he says, was to act like a “lean startup” smack in the middle of a mammoth federal agency, pulling together tools and resources on the fly to meet a particular need.
In this case, one of the tools Park decided he needed was Ed Mullen, a freelance Web designer in Jersey City, N.J.
Four months earlier, Mullen had been listening to talk radio and stewing over the controversial health care legislation making its tortuous way through Congress. The big debate was whether the law would include the so-called public option, a government-sponsored insurance plan. Mullen was preoccupied with another issue: the president’s idea of state-regulated insurance exchanges.
He was concerned Democratic lawmakers didn’t understand how transformative the exchanges could be and might jettison them in a bid to save the public option. “I thought the exchanges weren’t getting enough attention partly because people just couldn’t envision this abstract thing,” he says. “As a designer, I can visualize these things a bit better than the average person.”
Mullen had no training in health care. His only experience with government was as a political junkie watching from the sidelines. He knew how to design websites, though, and this problem in part seemed to him to be about design.
“Professionally, these are the kinds of problems I work on,” he says. “I do a lot of transactional sites and a lot of complex content. If you strip away the politics and the health care aspect, this is the kind of design concept I work on.”
Within a day and a half, Mullen built a mock-up of what an insurance exchange might look like. “I just needed to get it out of my system more than anything,” he says. He published the mock-up on his blog and sent out a tweet to White House New Media Director Macon Phillips. No response. He figured that was it.
Four months later, though, after the Affordable Care Act was on the books, Mullen got a call. Park had pulled together a small team inside HHS to build a website called Healthcare.gov. It wouldn’t be an insurance exchange, which the law didn’t require until 2014, but it would include something similar: a tool to calculate a person’s best insurance options based on his or her location, age and other factors. Phillips had shown Mullen’s blog post to the team and they wanted his help.
“We called him out of the blue and said, ‘Are you willing to come join the Healthcare.gov team?’ ” Park says. “We said, ‘You’d need to be here in basically a week and we’d pay you much less than you’re currently being paid and you’d have to work like a barking rabid dog, but are you willing to do this?’ ”
Mullen said yes. He signed on as the team’s design lead in May 2010 and two months later Healthcare.gov was online.
Bringing people like Mullen into government for short-term stints has become a hallmark of the Obama administration’s push to narrow the efficiency gap between government and the private sector, and it’s come to define Park’s work in government, first at HHS and, since March, as the nation’s second federal chief technology officer.
In the August issue of Government Executive, Joseph Marks looks at Todd Park's attempts to foster innovation.