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VA Embraces Risk through Innovation Center

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For the past two years, I’ve been a part of the effort to stand up VA’s Innovation Initiative (VAi2). Our mission is straightforward but challenging: introduce innovative technologies and methods into the largest civilian cabinet agency, a bureaucracy of over 300,000 employees that is more often associated with backlogs than with forward thinking.

We’ve learned a thing or two over the past few years about how to make that happen, always by trial and sometimes by error. We’ve adapted methods from the private sector—particularly venture capital—to the context of public administration, and adopted best practices from our sister agencies in the Executive Branch. As VAi2 makes the transition to the more permanent VA Center for Innovation (VACI) this autumn, we felt it worthwhile to pull back the curtain so you can see how we do what we do.

This is the first installment of a new series that will explore not only our conceptual approach, but also the operational strategies indispensable to the success of that vision. Our attitude toward organizational risk-taking is an appropriate point of departure, as it undergirds everything we do.

No enterprise, public or private, can endure without innovation, and innovation necessarily entails some level of risk. Because risk is especially scrutinized when funded by taxpayer dollars, it may be tempting for the public official faced with competing priorities to shy away from uncertain investments. But at VACI, we recognize that in the long run, embracing the status quo is the more risky proposition. By taking calculated risks with a short (12-24 months) turnaround, we can identify ill-fated ventures before VA makes a long-term commitment, thereby minimizing risk to the taxpayer. As the adage goes, if we’re going to fail, we fail quickly.

Yet more often those risks result in successes that recoup costs and significantly improve the way VA serves our Veterans. In just over two years, VACI projects have already put time- and life-saving mobile technology into the hands of clinicians, proven a business incubator model for Veteran entrepreneurs, and helped to spread the availability of personal health records beyond VA to private providers—to name just a few.

In the coming weeks, we’ll tell you more about our work and how we’re making change happen in government. We invite your questions and suggestions in the comments, as VACI is always in beta.

Learn more about the VA Center for Innoavtion.

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(Image via iQconcept/Shutterstock.com)

Matthew G. Robinson coordinates program evaluation for VACI's portfolio of over one hundred projects. Before joining VA, he worked to develop a Job Hunters' Program for the Kansas City Goodwill as an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA). Matt graduated with honor from the Michigan State University Honors College and earned his Master of Public Policy from the George Washington University's Trachtenberg School. He is a member of Pi Alpha Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa.

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