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A Hotbed of Innovation: The Exciting New Initiative at Veterans Affairs

Jonah Czerwinski, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, on how VA instituted an innovation culture.

In early 2010, Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Erik K. Shinseki launched the VA Innovation Initiative (known as VAi2) to bring fresh thinking to Departmental challenges. VAi2 hit the ground running, sourcing ideas from VA employees, entrepreneurs, and industry and is about to pivot toward a more permanent model of innovation.

Since its founding, we have received over 18,000 ideas from VA employees and nearly 800 from the private sector and academia. The result is a promising portfolio today of more than 120 funded innovations.

By now we’ve created a mechanism that brings private sector competitiveness and agility to public service.

We measure each innovation by the impact it has on access, quality, and satisfaction, while reducing cost. We seek to implement innovations that deliver results and ensure that VA continues to be a responsive organization serving the needs of Veterans well into the future.

The move to transition VAi2 into the VA Center for Innovation (VACI) this year reflects a commitment to fostering a culture of creativity and determination to make life better for our Veterans, their families, and their survivors.  This commitment is rooted in a belief that a large organization benefits from maintaining a disciplined process for tapping the talent and expertise of those on its front lines and outside its walls.

This move also reflects a plan to establish innovation as a core competency throughout the agency.  The new VACI is designed to allow VA to:

Create an enabling environment. This means VA provides the authority, priority, and capability for programs and people to succeed at innovation. Protocols and procedures allow for a dedicated program, for instance, and it features prominently in VA’s strategic and tactical plans. This requires VA to invest resources, including personnel and training dollars, toward this goal. 

Develop mechanisms that create implementable solutions. Programs need to be established to develop and make use of the skills required for innovation, as well as provide a framework for systematic ideation, piloting, measurement, and diffusion of innovation. This results in the organization quickly generating, testing, and preparing ideas for roll-out.

Deliver real value to VA’s organization and community. The objective is to establish programs that are not innovating for innovation’s sake, but rather producing outputs that are implemented and impactful to VA’s mission.  This results in the organization and community realizing better, faster, or more affordable products and services.

With a couple years under our belt, the VA innovations program has a track record that serves as a foundation on which we will build the new Center.  This new Center’s design reflects influences from innovators at the White House, NASA, Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, State, Defense, and other agencies, as well as private sector trailblazers.

But, as they say, we’re always in beta.  VACI will continue to evolve.  And our hope is that this program pays dividends for Veterans and taxpayers, but also for other government agencies interested in reducing barriers to bringing in new ideas.

In the months and years to come, we will continue to fund innovations, test solutions, and strengthen partnerships with the private sector. Most importantly, we will work to ensure that innovation is part of the culture at VA and that we stay on the cusp of technological, medical, and operational advancements.

The VA Center for Innovation delivers on a commitment to finding and fostering the very best solutions for our Veterans.  Keep an eye out for VACI announcements this fall.

(Image via CURAphotography/