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Listen to your creative federal employees

(Illustration for The Washington Post)

With budgets on the decline but expectations of government remaining appropriately high, every federal leader and front-line employee needs to find new ways of delivering value.

This is possible with strong leadership, creative employees and a fully integrated team ready to roll up their sleeves and embrace new ways of doing things. But based on the latest analysis of the 2013 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” data by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and by Deloitte and the Hay Group, government has much work to do in this regard.

According to the data, innovation across the government, as measured by the views of employees in the annual federal survey, has dropped in each of the last three years.

The indicators of this trend are striking.

Just one-third of federal employees surveyed, for example, said their agency rewards creativity and innovation. And while 90 percent of the employees reported that they are always looking for better ways to do their jobs, only 55 percent felt they are encouraged to do so. In addition, only 41 percent of the respondents felt empowered with respect to work processes and just 47 percent said they were satisfied with their involvement in decisions that affect their work.

Some agencies have fared better than others, with NASA getting the highest Best Places to Work innovation score for large agencies. The Federal Trade Commission was No. 1 among mid-size agencies, while the Surface Transportation Board took top honors for innovation among small agencies.

While bringing about change in the workplace takes time, there are steps you can take to create a positive climate that will foster innovation. Here are some suggestions:

Share a vision. Innovation requires optimism. And the current environment suggests you’ll need to shift employees’ views if you want them to be more innovative and creative. As a starting point, tell your team a story about how a new idea or process improved your organization’s ability to accomplish its mission. Explain what you would like to see the team achieve and talk with them about how to reach that goal.

Provide a forum. Discussion forums can improve employees' engagement and their sense of job satisfaction by including them in solving workplace issues. Ask employees directly how they would improve work processes and service delivery. Some agencies use crowd-sourcing technology to solicit ideas. Others devote meetings exclusively to the discussion of new ideas. Create six 10-minute slots and have employees sign up to present.

Build trust and serve as a mentor. If an idea isn’t ready for implementation, don’t shoot it down immediately. Provide constructive feedback and help employees improve the idea. Try asking different questions, such as, “What is missing?” or “What hasn’t been said yet?” Connect employees with others who may offer additional guidance.

Create a process for implementation. Decide which innovations to pursue based on your organization’s priorities and needs, and make sure the ideas can be supported with the necessary resources and technical help. The steps should be laid out in advance, with timetables to meet specific targets and clearly delineated individual responsibilities. Everyone involved should have a clear understanding of the change, why it is important and how it will benefit the organization.

Assess outcomes and reflect. Consider using metrics or employee feedback to evaluate the innovation effort, determine if it is working, and make any adjustments along the way. If the idea falls short, spend time examining what went wrong in order to improve the next project. Be honest about any difficulties or tough decisions.

Recognize employees. At team meetings or at more formal innovation award ceremonies, be sure to highlight the good work and creativity of employees and celebrate your successes. Recognition sends a positive message to team members that their ideas and efforts matter.

I encourage you to share your ideas or experiences on innovation in the federal workplace by posting a comment below or sending an e-mail to

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.

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