Why Government and Innovation Are Like Oil and Water
Policy + Politics

Why Government and Innovation Are Like Oil and Water

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In July 2013, President Obama said he would take steps to remake the federal government in the image of a Silicon Valley start-up – or at least a modern technology company. 

After a cabinet meeting, Obama said he had directed his administration to create an aggressive agenda for his second term – one “that delivers a smarter, more innovative and accountable government for its citizens.” 

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Experts say the key to achieving excellence in government service is for managers to encourage and reward innovation among employees. But Obama’s repeated efforts to modernize and overhaul the federal workforce and put government research and performance on a par with the private sector continue to fall flat. 

Last week, a government think tank that measures workforce attitudes and innovative activities issued a report showing that the overall innovation score had dropped for the fourth consecutive year. The study by the Partnership for Public Service said the score dipped by 4.4 points in 2014 to just 58.9 points out of 100 – the lowest since the index was begun in 2010.

The decline in the overall score coincided with the overall decline in federal employee job and workplace satisfaction for the same four-year period.

In one notable finding, private sector employees rated their organizations about 14 points higher than federal workers rated the government in encouraging and rewarding innovation.

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“The federal government is a big place. It’s important to recognize that while the overall numbers are in decline, there are some important innovative activities taking place and some real bright spots,” Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said in an interview. “But the overall story is clearly not a good one. The president certainly has substantial responsibility but there’s plenty of blame to go around.”

The five major departments and agencies that get the highest marks for encouraging innovation are the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the State Department, the Departments of Commerce and Health and Human Services, and the Air Force, the group found.

Many agencies rated highest in innovation also get the best marks for strong leadership and good working conditions, not surprisingly. There is a direct correlation between strong leadership and a good and productive work environment, says the Partnership for Public Service 

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Innovation Score (2014) by Department
1 NASA 76.7
2 State Dept. 65.9
3 Commerce Dept. 63.9
4 HHS 63.5
5 Air Force 61.8
6 EPA 61.1
7 Navy 60.5
8 Interior Dept. 60.1
9 Office of Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, Defense Agencies, and Defense Dept. 60.0
10 Justice Dept. 60.0
11 Army 59.5
12 Transportation Dept. 58.7
13 Treasury Dept. 58.2
14 Social Security Admin. 58.1
15 Agriculture Dept 57.7
16 VA 57.7
17 Labor Dept 56.3
18 Homeland Security 49.4
Source: Partnership for Public Service

The five worst agencies for fostering innovation include the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Labor Department, the Agriculture Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents last year said there were no rewards for creativity and innovation in their agencies, while  46 percent complained managers didn’t encourage them to come up with new or better ways to work. Nearly 90 percent insist they are constantly on the lookout for ways to do things better. Stier said Congress must assume some blame for the decline in innovative activity. Noting that the Internal Revenue Service, the VA,  DHS and other agencies have come under fire in recent years, Stier said many federal workers clearly understand that “if you do something that doesn’t work, there’s a very big negative consequence.”

Related: Why Federal Workers Are Better Off Than the Rest of Us

He added, “If you do something that does work, there is very little upside. So that creates almost risk aversion.”

NASA earned the highest marks for innovation among large agencies and departments last year, with an index score of 76.7 out of 100. “Because of the value that NASA leaders place on innovation, the agency runs a variety of programs designed to encourage creative thinking,” the report said. “The Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) hosts NASA@Work, an internal virtual platform that allows employees to collaborate in online discussions to solve challenges posted by their colleagues.”

Challenge winners then receive awards, including items signed by astronauts or lunch with their directors.  

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