Modernizing the Bully Pulpit

Innovation & Digital Communication at the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General

Executive Summary

Among the most difficult challenges in today’s health care system is connecting our nation’s citizens with accurate and actionable information that improves their health and well-being. These barriers are reflected by the growing diversity in audiences; increased needs to tailor messages for different age groups, geography, and marketplaces; and complexity of public health science and medical information. Communication and information technology is advancing rapidly, bringing both challenges, like crowded and competitive airwaves, and opportunity, like lower cost, speed, and channel proliferation. Conveying timely, accurate, and often life-saving public health information is a big challenge for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and frankly, many public and private stakeholders in America’s health. To fulfill the role of “Nation’s Doctor,” the U.S. Surgeon General is bringing new tools and business strategies to address these challenges.

The Innovator-in-Residence (IIR) is playing a key role in bringing a Design Thinking approach into the Office of the Surgeon General, as it looks to modernize its communication platform. What is Design Thinking and how will it help solve our problems? Design Thinking is a creative, iterative approach to solving complex challenges that starts with people. Our efforts to design effective communication strategies necessitate understanding human desirability, business viability and technical feasibility – creating extraordinary value where these three factors meet. The Design Thinking methodology involves the right framing of the challenge, conducting research and providing inspiration, synthesizing information and defining opportunity areas, followed by formulating new ideas that shape prototype solutions and iterating on them using feedback. The benefits of this approach are that results are gained quickly, people are engaged throughout, costs of business are lower, and project risks are managed more effectively because of early engagement with end users.

How can Design Thinking practices be used strategically by the Surgeon General in his work to benefit public health? The IIR project is tackling this in two ways: First, leveraging design in modernizing communication approaches for the nation’s leading voice in public health. Second, seeding innovation in the Office of the Surgeon General by cultivating the Design Thinking capability. The latter enables the ability to create and execute on the former.

In modernizing the communication platforms of the Surgeon General, the IIR plays a role in taking “heritage” communications, such as the Surgeon General’s Reports, Calls to Action, and Public Health Reports, the official journal of the U.S. Public Health Service, and thinking about ways to bring these traditionally scientific communications to a broader audience. The Office of the Surgeon General’s staff also prepares and coordinates Surgeon General’s correspondence, speeches and forums for public engagement. Through this project, OSG is innovating on communication and media strategies, by helping create more user-centric content and delivering this content through new media channels (e.g.,, a website geared towards clinicians) as well as in-person engagement. At an enterprise level, HHS benefits from this project by expanding exposure and experience using technology avenues such as podcasts, and social media pipelines. The goal is simple – add greater value to public health content by presenting it to the people wherever they are, and when they need it most.

From an organizational standpoint, the IIR role is positioned to develop a broader team orientation to Design Thinking and creativity. Through small ways, such as hosting brainstorms, to larger ways, like designing the digital content and strategy for a campaign, Design Thinking and the cultural qualities it embodies – openness, optimism, and the willingness to “experiment” through prototyping – become more entrenched in the culture of the office. How might the Office of the Surgeon General become a model for innovation in government and engagement?

In partnering with key stakeholders in public health, the Surgeon General and the IIR will lead projects to co-create the design of a communication strategy for public health and culture of innovation. By experimenting with different media strategies, the responses to content will be measured and used to help future design of messaging campaigns. The project will be sharing results learned from these projects so that the use of Design Thinking strategies can be adapted for a broader array of citizen engagement and internal evolution.

A project supported by the: HHS Innovator-in-Residence Program

Team Members

Ann Kim


February 2016: Innovator-in-Residence Project begins
July 2016: Seminar on Design Thinking
July 2016: First Interagency Meeting on Design and Public Policy
August 2016: Launch for Opioid Providers
August 2016: Mailing of TurnTheTideRx letter


Project Sponsor

Additional Information