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The Federal Coach
Posted at 01:44 PM ET, 10/10/2011

How to overcome bureaucracy so you can innovate

I am in a federal office that places a high value on innovation, yet there are so many bureaucratic obstacles to being innovative. Are there any good models you can recommend where federal programs have been both innovative and produced valuable results? -Federal Supervisor (GS-14), Department of Homeland Security

I can share plenty of examples about innovative federal programs that have produced measurable results, but your real question seems to be about models for navigating obstacles that inevitably pop up between generating an idea and actual implementation.

So, let’s first respond to the question with a story that should provide you with some inspiration. In case you missed it, The Washington Post profiled Diane Braunstein last month. Why? Leading a program called Compassionate Allowances at the Social Security Administration, Braunstein mastered the “minutia” of process and regulation to create a fast-track system for terminally and seriously ill Americans to receive approval for Social Security disability benefits in days or weeks instead of months or years.

That’s the inspiration, but what about the model you’re after? Well, there’s no one model to navigate the bureaucracy – each agency has its own after all – but there are some lessons learned from Braunstein’s and other federal innovators’ experiences applicable to federal leaders.

· It takes a lot of perseverance to get through the “nos.” While innovation often looks obvious in hindsight, any federal employee interested in taking a new idea to implementation must recognize that a long road lies ahead. And don’t be fooled. Innovation is often just as difficult in the private sector. Organizations are built for efficiency, and innovation disrupts that status quo. As a result, you need to believe in your idea and stick with it over the long term. It took Braunstein about two years to research, develop, test and ultimately implement her team’s ideas.

· As a public servant, remember the mantra – people helping people. Particularly inside the Beltway, working in a headquarters office, it’s easy to become disconnected from the Americans you serve. Braunstein and her team – working with the National Institutes of Health and patient advocacy groups – held public hearings and reviewed detailed medical information to identify the best opportunities to improve the process for determining disability benefits for those diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer or a rare and debilitating chronic diseases.

· Start small and then go big. Agencies often feel a legitimate pressure to implement and scale programs quickly. Unfortunately, that’s an approach fraught with risk. The best innovations start small, rely on experiments, test to refine the idea and then grow larger. So too, Braunstein and her team began improving disability benefits processes for those with terminal and chronic illnesses on a small scale in 2008 before growing the program to serve approximately 65,000 Americans this year. Over that time, the team tweaked the process and developed new tools (like an easy-to-use reference guide and training programs for caseworkers) to further increase efficiency and reduce subjectivity.

· What gets measured gets done. Ultimately, an innovation takes hold and gains support when it delivers results. Because Braunstein and her team could demonstrate that they were reducing processing times for those who in some cases were dying or in desperate need of help, no one could argue with the innovation. Use your passion for any new idea to fuel what’s often the less exciting effort to collect, analyze and report data about your results. Without some evidence, your good ideas will likely be overlooked.

Braunstein’s story at the Social Security Administration is just one concrete example of the innovation occurring across our federal government, but the lessons from her experience can apply to virtually any agency. Please share some of your untold stories of government innovation and post you thoughts below, or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

More from On Leadership:

How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

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By  |  01:44 PM ET, 10/10/2011

 
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