A Declining Number of Feds Feel Empowered to Innovate

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Just 38 percent of federal employees believe creativity and innovation are rewarded.

Faced with the constant pressures of doing more with less, many agencies and IT leaders are looking to infuse innovation into their cultures and strategic plans. There's a problem though: Fewer and fewer federal employees believe that creativity and innovation are rewarded at their agency.  

The 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, released last week by the Office of Personnel Management, found that only 40 percent of federal workers believe that workplace awards depend on how well employees perform their jobs, while just 38 percent believe that creativity and innovation are rewarded. Positive responses in both of these areas have seen a steady decline of roughly 6 percent over the past two years, according to the survey.  

Federal IT shops in particular are seeing the value innovation can bring to agency services and cost-cutting measures, so much so that the Federal CIO Council created an innovation committee as part of its recent restructuring from six committees down to three. But while moves such as these represent positive steps, agency leaders, including CIOs, still need to put forth additional efforts to truly reign in a new era of innovation.  

“The main theme on the mind of every CIO today is budget, and unfortunately, that’s going to be the situation for a long, long time,” Van Hitch, a senior advisor at Deloitte and former CIO at the Justice Department, told Wired Workplace on Tuesday. “The competing or in some cases conflicting objective is how do they infuse innovation into government and IT? As a CIO, I always felt it was my job to do that.”

And much of that job on the part of a federal CIO is ensuring employees are empowered to find new, innovative ways of moving the mission forward, Hitch said.   

“Agencies need to showcase projects that demonstrate innovation . . . perhaps by hosting an innovation conference within an agency each year,” he said. “That would go a long way in showing that innovation is important.”  

It’s also the job of the CIO to attract, hire and retain IT staff with an innovative mindset, particularly at a time when widely-publicized failures like the HealthCare.gov website may fuel the public’s perception that government is ponderous, slow and costly, Hitch said. “The biggest thing that government has going for it is it allows IT people to work on big problems with big impact,” he said. “Hopefully innovative people who have ideas will take that as a challenge and will not be scared away.”

Inspiring a culture of innovation also will require top executives -- from the President to agency leadership to CIOs and on down -- to commit to and stick with a strategy. For CIOs, this could include a requirement of an innovation strategy in their annual Exhibit 300 forms, which outline business plans for IT investments to the Office of Management and Budget, Hitch said.  

“The innovation plan and strategy would need to be reviewed and approved by leadership and the CIO to make sure it is well-founded and everyone is committed to it,” he said. “That’s a key way to institutionalize it.”  

Agency leadership also must advance the mindset that IT projects are interdisciplinary, requiring expertise not only in IT but in finance, policy and other areas, Hitch said. “Coming up with the right idea requires an understanding of the mission, which won’t come unless you have the perspective of all covered on the team,” he said. “Collaboration tools can enable them to bring their thoughts on each of the problems that a particular project faces.”