Shannon Sartin leads a team designing digital tools to improve health care for Americans.

Shannon Sartin leads a team designing digital tools to improve health care for Americans. USDS photo

Meet the Executive Bringing Digital Savvy to Health and Human Services

Shannon Sartin leads a team striving to make healthcare work better for Americans.

The private-sector-bred technology mavens at the U.S. Digital Service—the government tech startup launched by President Obama to bring Silicon Valley design sensibility to government programs—appear to have found something unexpected in the Trump era: Opportunity.

Despite considerable turnover at USDS following the presidential transition and fears that the organization’s mission might be usurped by President Trump’s new Office of American Innovation, staffing has stabilized at about 180, down from just over 200 under Obama. About 100 have joined since the 2016 election.

Recruiting at the organization members affectionately call the “Peace Corps of geeks” has remained steady, said Shannon Sartin, executive director of digital service at the Health and Human Services Department. While USDS has morphed from a White House startup into a network of teams working across five major departments and the Small Business Administration, improving the lives of Americans through better technology remains the “unwavering mission,” Sartin said.

The men and women at USDS serve as digital utility players, mostly on break from Silicon Valley, to try their hand at easing agency software headaches in tasks as varied as processing health insurance claims, determining veterans benefits and modernizing immigration records. Besides supporting HHS and SBA, digital service teams are embedded at the Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Education departments.

USDS gives private sector technologists an “opportunity to give back with the skill sets they have in service to their country,” she said.

Sartin’s team of 13 at HHS is designing digital tools to focus on two main challenges at the department: measuring the quality of medical care and organizing Medicare recipients’ claims to improve the payment process.

For the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ quality measures program, Sartin’s team is using agile project management methodology to build new Web tools for medical personnel. It “focuses on user-impact and is a great place for USDS because of the need for human-centered design for clinicians,” she said. “The premise is value-based care, and for the outcomes to keep populations healthy, we need data to make the determination of how to pay a doctor,” she said.

A second focus is an application programming interface called Blue Button that provides Medicare beneficiaries access to past claims data. Links to third-parties the beneficiary selects also allows access to authorized physicians, pharmacists and researchers.

Her team’s work requires updating an infrastructure for processing claims that’s been around for many years using ancient COBOL software. “One thing we quickly recognized is that the infrastructure would need to shift to [a more] modern, better-aligned format,” she said.

“CMS is the largest healthcare payer in the country, and because HHS is a regulatory agency, its decisions impact more than just the care received,” she said. “So in order to not be the 800-pound gorilla in healthcare, we have to make sure that the ability to process claims is leading the way, and not getting in the way of somebody who wants to make technical advancements.”

What is not on her team’s agenda is improvements to the healthcare.gov site, whose foul-ups for enrolling people in the exchanges under the Affordable Care Act in 2014 led President Obama to create the USDS.  “We’re consistently available if any system goes down,” Sartin said, “but in last open enrollment, I was never asked to scrub in on anything, and they have their own team.”

Nor does her fix-it squad get involved in decisions about website content, she said, in reference to recent HHS managers’ controversial removal without fanfare of some content related to Obamacare and certain information on women’s health.

An Unlikely Career Path

Sartin happened on the Digital Service almost by accident. After earning a B.A. in Italian from the University of Arizona, she bounced around Web development startups in sales and marketing and co-founded a food waste disposal company called Scraps on Scraps.

Her first experience of working in government came in 2010, around the time when the Obama team was launching federal IT reforms. She worked at HHS’s Indian Health Service. “The internal momentum in agencies for transformative efforts was not there,” Sartin said, so she returned to the private sector. But she noted that “the vast majority of technology work for the federal government is done by contractors, and if you can get good people to the table, you can solve problems.”

One day she stumbled across the USDS website, she said. “I thought, there’s no way they would ever want me because I don’t come from Google or Facebook,” she recalled. Happily, she was wrong. “USDS is one of the most intellectually challenging jobs and surroundings I’ve ever been in,” she said. “I’ve never worked with a more brilliant group of people, and I’ve felt there is no way I’m as smart as all these humans.”

The atmosphere can be intense, she said. Colleagues are committed “to doing good for the country, and the sense of community is really important.” She values career feds at HHS, some of whom have been at the department for decades and demonstrate “the same level of brilliance and amazingness” as her USDS colleagues, she said. “It’s impossible to be effective as an organization without the support and team building, and they have so much subject-matter expertise.”

But “bureaucracy is really hard,” she cautioned. “In a small- to mid-size company, you don’t face as many people saying no, and there are not as many hoops to jump through to get something done.”

Agency staff often “work in silos, keeping heads down and focusing on their own mission—‘I’m just here to buy things’—and maybe some forget they’re connected to providing health care to 150 million Americans,” Sartin said.

“They’re forgetting to look more broadly at what we’re trying to achieve. They don’t do great team-building in government to work collaboratively,” she added.

Sartin says CMS will always have a need for the kind of work the digital team provides. “The odds of CMS not having projects requiring USDS are pretty slim.”

Sartin herself today is more than 2 1/2 years into a maximum four-year term at USDS, where the average tenure is 18 months. “I recognize I will have to leave. I’m keeping an eye out, but I have yet to find anything with as much impact as my current position,” she said. “I won’t leave until I do.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.