The Washington Post

Innovation is a matter of perspective

The federal government has an innovation problem — or does it? The answer depends on whom you ask.

Surveyed federal employees have had a declining view of government innovation over the past three years. But that doesn’t mean Uncle Sam doesn’t have pockets of creativity, as highlighted by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The bad news first: Less than 40 percent of federal employees felt that, in their agency, creativity and innovation were rewarded — a 2.5 point drop from 2011.

And while 91 percent of federal employees said they were consistently looking for ways to improve in their jobs, just slightly more than 57 percent felt encouraged to do so.

The assessments are part of an analysis by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which produces the “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings. Those rankings are based on the federal government’s annual survey of the workforce.

Between 2011 and 2012, federal employees’ scores for overall innovation in government dropped 1.7 points to 61.5 out of a possible 100, the Partnership said.

“It’s not an immense drop, but year to year it’s a troubling one, especially in an environment where we need an innovative government,” said Max Stier, the group’s president and chief executive.

“If we don’t do things in smarter ways, the government will not be able to perform with the resources it has.”  

All but two of the 18 large agencies ranked in the report, received a lower score for overall innovation in 2012 than in 2011. NASA, however, received the highest innovation score, while the Department of Homeland Security came in last.

NASA’s space flight centers helped give the agency a boost, with the John C. Stennis Space Center, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center taking first, second and third place respectively in agency subcomponent rankings.

At DHS, among its 292 subcomponent rankings, Secret Service landed at 265, Immigration and Customs Enforcement at 288 and the Transportation Security Administration at 292.

Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation offered a different vantage point. It gave some federal agencies a boost Wednesday in its “Top 25 Innovations in Government” list.

The list covers innovations in federal, state, local and tribal governments. In the fall, a winner and four finalists will be selected for the Innovations in American Government Award established by the Ford Foundation in 1985.

Nine of the 25 nominees involve federal agencies.

NASA made that list, too, for its collaboration with the State Department, USAID and sportswear company Nike on an initiative called Launch, which seeks to foster innovative ideas.

“NASA works on some of the most scientifically challenging questions around,” said Jeri Buchholz, assistant administrator for NASA’s Office of Human Capital Management. “To do that, you need to have have a culture that encourages new ways to solve problems and empowers people to do that.”

Buchholz said a big part of fostering innovation is identifying administrative barriers that could slow down employees. She explained that the agency regularly reviews its internal controls to make sure they’re still relevant.

“It’s an ongoing effort, not a single program or process or procedure,” she said. “It really needs to be a part of everyone’s day-to-day work life.”

Although the Department of Transportation ranked 16 out of 18 on the Partnership’s list, its IdeaHub has helped the agency move in a positive direction. Ash recognized the internal, online community designed for transportation employees to share and develop new ideas.

Transportation also showed the most improvement among large agencies on the Partnership ranking, rising by 1.7 percentage points from 2011 to 2012.

Department spokesman Justin Nisly said the agency had implemented more than 100 employee-generated ideas since launching IdeaHub three years ago.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which ranked 16 of 20 midsize agencies in the Partnership report, made it onto the Ash list twice — once for its neighborhood revitalization program and again for its program focused on sustainable communities, which it conducts in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation.

For Stephen Goldsmith, Ash’s director of the Innovations in Government Program, that federal employees are frustrated doesn’t mean that pockets of creativity can’t emerge.

Like NASA’s Buchholz, he said it means giving employees permission to experiment.

“In a risk-averse context, the courage and ability to think across those boundaries is restricted. And I’m afraid that’s what’s occurring today in the federal workforce,” he said.

“It’s not even just the political environment in Washington, it’s the structures of government themselves that are quite inconsistent with the bold innovative thinking that is necessary to move us to a better place.”

The Partnership’s Stier echoes Goldsmith’s assessment.

“We have a government that is way too risk-averse,” he said. “By attempting to avoid mistakes, we fail to take advantage of positive opportunities.”

Government must offer more formal awards and incentives to employees for their creativity, the Partnership report recommends, as well as create a collaborative culture.

It comes down to a relatively basic principle, as Goldsmtih sees it: “My assumption . . . is places where employees enjoy working are more conducive to innovation.”

The Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post have a content-sharing relationship.

“If we don’t do things in smarter ways, the government will not be able to perform with the resources it has.”

Max Stier, Partnership for Public Service

Emi Kolawole is the editor-in-residence at Stanford University's, where she works on media experimentation and design.
Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The Republicans debate Saturday night. The New Hampshire primary is on Feb. 9. Get caught up on the race.
Heading into the next debate...
Donald Trump returns to the Republican presidential debate stage Saturday night. Marco Rubio arrives as a sudden star, but fending off ferocious attacks from his rivals. Still glowing from his Iowa victory, Ted Cruz is trying to consolidate conservative support, while Ben Carson is struggling to avoid being typecast as the dead man walking.
Play Video
New Hampshire polling averages
Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the next state to vote, but Marco Rubio has recently seen a jump in his support, according to polls.
New Hampshire polling averages
A victory in New Hampshire revitalized Hillary Clinton's demoralized campaign in 2008. But this time, she's trailing Bernie Sanders, from neighboring Vermont. She's planning to head Sunday to Flint, Mich., where a cost-saving decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water of the poor, heavily black, rust-belt city. 
56% 36%
Upcoming debates
Feb. 6: GOP debate

on ABC News, in Manchester, N.H.

Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Campaign 2016
State of the race

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.