Report: Lack of encouragement causes agency innovation to fizzle

Monday - 7/23/2012, 8:35pm EDT

The federal government is saddled with the reputation of a stodgy, stunted work environment where the status quo rules the day.

But the problem isn't that federal employees don't have bright ideas for doing business differently, according to a new Partnership for Public Service report. The problem is that too often agency leadership fails to encourage employees to think outside the box or to reward them when they do so.

Using data from the 2011 Office of Personnel Management Federal Employee Viewpoint survey, the report, "Achieving a Culture of Innovation," found the overwhelming majority of feds — 91 percent — are actively seeking new ways to do their jobs better.

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However, just 59 percent of employees said they were actually encouraged by their agencies to suggest ideas that would improve the office's effectiveness. And only 39 percent of federal employees said creativity and innovation are rewarded at their agencies.

In contrast, 71 percent of employees in the private sector report feeling encouraged to think of new ways of doing business.

"Federal workers are mo­tivated to drive change, but need stronger support from their organizations and leaders to do so," the report concluded.

Overall, the government's "innovation score," based on a set of indicators from the Viewpoint survey, remained virtually unchanged from last year. And the report warned the government is "at risk of falling behind," especially as federal agencies are faced with carrying out their missions with declining resources.

NASA soars, SEC stumbles

NASA earned top marks as the most innovative large agency, which the partnership noted is not entirely surprising. "Innovation is an inherent part of NASA's culture," the report stated.

The agency's score of 75 is 12 points above the government-wide average. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission, the General Services Administration and the State Department also ranked highly among larger agencies.

Underscoring the point that "innovation is not just for scientists," the Surface Transportation Board, the small agency responsible for setting railroad policy, earned the highest innovation scores of all federal agencies regardless of size.

"Board leaders encourage employ­ees to make suggestions during a weekly open door meet­ing, and honor the best proposals with the agency's own 'genius' award, presented at an annual ceremony," the report stated.

Across the board, agencies that scored highly empowered employees to think and act differently "by establishing an environment for innovation to thrive," according to the report.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Securities and Exchange Commission ranked at the bottom of the list of the 30 agencies that were analyzed. Just 24 percent of SEC employees said creativity and innovation are rewarded, a 17 percent decline from two years ago.

The Departments of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Labor and Transportation also all scored at least five points below the government-wide average innovation score.

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