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Given the complexity and difficulty of the challenges that government leaders face, encouraging innovation among their workers can pay dividends. Government-wide employee survey data, however, suggest that much more needs to be done to foster this type of culture at many federal organizations.

According to that data, nearly 90 percent of federal employees are looking for ways to be more innovative and effective, but only 54 percent feel encouraged by their leaders to come up with new ways of doing work. To make matters worse, fewer than a third say they believe creativity and innovation are rewarded in their agencies.

It's worth pausing to examine what sets apart those agencies that do. They tend to have developed innovative cultures by providing forums for employees to share and test new ideas, by encouraging responsible risk-taking, and by occasionally bringing in outside talent for rotational assignments to infuse new thinking into the workplace.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is one example of an agency working at this. In 2010 it created the Idea Lab, with the goal to “remove barriers HHS employees face and promote better ways of working in government.”

It launched an awards program as part of Idea Lab called HHS Innovates to identify promising, new ideas likely to improve effectiveness. And to directly support implementing these ideas, the lab launched HHS Ignites, which provides teams with seed funding of $5,000 and a three-month timeframe to work on approved action plans. When the agency needs a shot of outside inspiration, it has its Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program, which enlists experts from the private and nonprofit sectors to join HHS for one or two years to develop new approaches and improve practices.

Some of its successes so far include Project JumpStart, an employee plan to modernize the Food and Drug Administration’s drug review process, and FreeStuff, a National Institutes of Health online platform for sharing equipment and materials across offices that is saving tens of thousands of dollars. At the Indian Health Service, an employee-led redesign of the hospital admissions system is fast-tracking patients through emergency rooms to improve urgent medical care.

While the HHS Idea Lab program is a good concept, it’s the agency’s implementation that distinguishes it from other government efforts. Federal leaders elsewhere would be wise to borrow a few of their tactics.

As a starting point, federal leaders should issue a clear call for innovation that demands a measurable result. Too often, leaders ask for changes without any specificity as to the result they are looking to achieve. If you want your employees to be more innovative, you need to set a concrete, data-driven goal — whether that's to reduce process steps or process times, improve customer satisfaction or reduce costs.

Secondly, you should help your employees take their ideas to implementation by playing equal parts cheerleader and drill sergeant. That is, you need to boost their confidence while at the same time pushing them to develop concrete action plans, experiments and measurements to show their ideas deliver results.

While the political climate has a very low tolerance for failure in government, you can run limited, safe experiments to test ideas before fully committing to implementing them. If they succeed, you can continue scaling the idea. If they fail, you can mine those lessons to educate others.

Whatever the outcome, leaders need to recognize the effort that goes into innovating even if the well intentioned idea did not fully pan out. Hold a debriefing session with the team and personally express your gratitude for the success or the good old college try. Hand-write thank you notes to each member of the team. Or have a public awards ceremony to recognize successful employees for their efforts. Whatever your approach, employee recognition is essential.

What types of creative projects are working well at your agency? Share your ideas by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

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

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