In July 2012, the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte published a report based on analyzing data from the 2011 Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to summarize the sentiments of government employees on their view of innovation in their working environment. While a significant majority of employees (91.5%) are looking for ways to perform their job better, a much smaller percentage (59.2%) “reported that they are encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things” and only 38.8% responded that creativity and innovation were rewarded in their office. Both stats were lower than the previous year’s results (59.6% and 39% respectively). While the nation’s public servants are overwhelmingly eager to find new ways to improve their performance, office leadership sometimes isn’t there to encourage or nurture an employee’s drive for creativity or innovation.
The study continued to detail which federal agencies received the highest and lowest marks according to the level of perceived innovation. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and General Services Administration (GSA) were among the highest ranked in agencies that federal employees viewed as innovative. NASA, the leader in the survey’s results for the second year, even has a page on their site that advertises the different ways that its innovation “creates new jobs, new markets, and new technologies.” Although other federal agencies could reason that NASA has always been about innovating technologies and its scale is far beyond the reach of many offices, the funds and the tech are only secondary to what allows NASA to reach the top of the charts in the minds of government workers: its attitude.
The path to a truly innovative agency is more than fulfilling an Executive memorandum to have more mobile access to government data or a directive for better customer service. While ever-evolving technologies have opened up new avenues to increase government-to-citizen engagement, the best cloud solution isn’t going to be effective for a work environment that doesn’t support a staffer’s desire to try something new. Becoming a more innovative agency is about changing leadership’s perspective and office culture around how best to serve the public; it is about encouraging employees to think, “How can we better reach the public? What old problems can be solved with new approaches or modern technologies?” If agencies and employees fear the consequences of being creative or thinking outside the box, the government will always be one step behind the expectations of the public. Yet, waiting for this change to happen from the top-down is hardly the most effective solution.
In Peter Sims’s book, “Little Bets”, Sims writes that part of the problem is that most were simply taught a certain way. We’ve been hammered that “memorization and learning to follow established procedures are the key methods for success.” We are not often given opportunities for original experiments or to flex our creative muscles outside a narrow, established parameter. In the public sector, rules and regulations regarding the use of government’s time and taxpayer money can often limit any room for trial-and-error projects even further, especially when the return on investment is very gray. Sims explains that “engaging in discovery and making little bets is a way to complement more linear, procedural thinking. No one can take their eye off their core business or responsibilities, but anyone can spend a portion of their time and energies using little bets to discover, test, and improve ideas.”
Spurring innovation in a government agency does not always have to start with an Executive mandate or a clean sweep in leadership. It can start small, with federal employees building on successful projects that move beyond what has always been done to placate problems. Although some agencies’ leadership could be more open to supporting their staffs’ desires to find new, creative solutions to better reach the public, an agency’s attitude and work environment will only change after there are examples to point to and successful projects that can support the idea that “there is a better way to serve the public.”
A question for many is how to make that first step. How does a public servant know when it is the right time or situation to try something new? What are some examples of how others have taken that chance to be innovative and met success?
On October 16, GovDelivery is inviting government workers to take part in discussions with Peter Sims and inventive government leaders on how to best seize opportunities for innovation and share best practices for expanding government’s reach to the public through dynamic digital communications solutions. To attend this free event, register online.
While most agencies cannot expect to become like NASA or NRC overnight, the road to a more innovative government and changing the attitude of offices begins with government employees learning lessons from their successful colleagues and becoming their own leaders for change and innovation.