Innovation can take many forms in government, from implementing improved work processes and more effectively providing critical services to the public, to discovering medical breakthroughs that save lives, finding ways to achieve large cost savings or landing a robotic vehicle on Mars.

In a recent analysis of the 2012 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" data by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte, employees throughout the federal government said they wanted to be innovative, but did not feel they were getting sufficient leadership support.

(Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post) (Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)

While 91 percent of the federal employees surveyed said they are always looking for ways to do their jobs better, only 57.2 percent said they are encouraged to do so. In addition, only about one-third believe creativity and innovation are rewarded by their agency.

Given the enormous challenges facing the nation, there is a great need for innovation to help spur improved agency performance, especially at a time of reduced resources and declining trust in government. Fortunately, some agencies are making progress and were ranked highly by their employees regarding innovation, including NASA, the State Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Although not an easy task, there are steps you can take as federal leaders and managers to jump start an innovation culture and, in the process, improve the way our government works.

Visibly and directly encourage continuous improvement. Promote an open environment that allows for feedback from your employees. This can include a forum for developing and testing innovations or for allowing employees to share their new ideas at team meetings, brainstorming sessions or by launching employee competitions. For example, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) IdeaHub fosters an online community of federal employees to propose innovative ideas in a collaborative environment. is the government’s online portal for crowdsourcing solutions to problems via prize competitions. The Web site is saving money and driving innovation within government.

Offer appropriate incentives to reward innovative approaches. Recognize innovative employees at team meetings or with more formal innovation awards. Recognition sends a positive message to other would-be innovators. You can also call an all-staff meeting, print up a certificate, and feature employees who are generating results and cost savings. They’ll be all the more motivated to keep up their great work, and you will also inspire others in the process.

Don’t go it alone, build bridges to others agencies and sectors. Help spur employee creativity by collaborating with others to achieve audacious goals. For example, NASA, USAID, the State Department and Nike partnered to form to identify and accelerate high-impact ideas or technologies around clean water, health, energy, education and other global sustainability challenges.

Use data to evaluate what programs are working well. An analytics approach to management is at the heart of an agency’s ability to know how well a program is functioning and can help determine what can be done better. The data can help you monitor progress, unearth problems and identify where adjustments are needed to improve performance.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Even if an innovation effort is not successful, it is important that you and your team spend time examining what went wrong in order to improve the next project. If an idea isn’t yet ready for implementation, don’t shoot it down immediately. Instead, help employees refine the idea.

In today’s environment, federal leaders have no choice but to develop new innovative ways to perform their missions. Public demands are growing, resources are shrinking, and the need for more efficient and effective government is ever present. As a federal manager, how are you creating a culture of innovation for your employees? Please share your strategies by posting your ideas below. You can also email me at

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

Read also:

The federal agencies that rank best and worst on leadership

Getting creative in federal government

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.