Report: Innovation in decline at federal agencies

Even as budgets shrink, agencies need to do more to foster innovation, according to a new analysis of federal employee survey data.

The Partnership for Public Service, working with Deloitte and the Hay Group, examined innovation in government from the perspective of employees as part of its ongoing examination of data from its 2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government study, which in turn analyzes data from the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employer Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). In their breakout analysis of data from the 2014 Best Places study, PPS found a continued government-wide decline in how federal employees ranked innovation at their agencies.

PPS calculated an index score based on employee responses to three questions from the FEVS—"I feel encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things;" "Creativity and innovation are rewarded;" and "I am constantly looking for ways to do my job better"—and found a government-wide decline in the percentage of positive responses.

From 2013 to 2014, the government-wide innovation score dropped by 0.5 points to 58.9 out of 100, and has fallen 4.4 points since the researchers started measuring innovation in 2010. As the authors point out, the drop also coincides with the overall decline in federal employee job and workplace satisfaction for that same four-year period.

In terms of the three key questions on which the index is based, a large majority of employees, 89.8 percent, said they are constantly looking for ways to do their jobs better, which the authors say is a positive indication that employees in fact are motivated to innovate. But at the same time, only 54.1 percent of employees said they feel encouraged to come up with new ways to do their work, and just under a third—32.7 percent—believe creativity and innovation are rewarded in their organization.

Among large agencies, those with the highest innovation scores included NASA at the top of the rankings, followed by the departments of State, Commerce, Health and Human Services and Air Force.

Top scores, in order, for mid-sized agencies went to the Federal Trade Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, National Science Foundation, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and National Credit Union Administration.

The Surface Transportation Board got the top score among small agencies, followed by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Peace Corps, Office of Management and Budget and Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.

The PPS report offers five key recommendations based on the findings. The authors advise agencies to create awards programs for employee innovation; establish an internal group to help employees test ideas and navigate bureaucracy; start a program to bring in outside thinkers to help solve problems, promote learning and cooperation across units; and provide a forum for workers to collaborate and share ideas.

The study also discussed several programs that some of the highest-ranking agencies are using to encourage innovation.

The Department of Health and Human Services, for example, in 2010 created an initiative called the Idea Lab to promote and reward innovation. According to HHS, the lab’s goal is to “remove barriers HHS employees face and promote better ways of working in government.”

Another program detailed in the report, an agency-wide Innovation Awards program launched by NASA, allows employees to nominate themselves or their peers for several types of innovation awards—including a Fail Smart award aimed at rewarding and encouraging “responsible risk takers” at the agency who "use failure as an opportunity to learn and refine their ideas."

Among the initiatives discussed in the study, PPS Vice President of Policy John Palguta believes programs like NASA's Innovation Awards program likely are the easiest for other agencies to implement to begin generating results.

"Any agency can do that," Palguta told Federal Soup. "Any organization is capable is of rewarding good behaviors and being innovative. And you can get really great results from that."

"It doesn't even have to be a formal program," Palguta said. "Just set up an environment where people are going to be encouraged, and reward them for trying new ways to get the mission done that are going to be more effective than the old ones."

2021 Digital Almanac

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