How Five Federal Agencies Fostered Innovation

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New report showcases initiatives including a procurement lab and virtual internship program. 

Change can be difficult in the federal government, but some agencies are making headway on fostering innovation in the workplace and could serve as a model for others, according to a new report. 

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and Slalom Consulting, a firm that focuses on technology and business transformation, released a report on federal innovation at their first-ever federal innovation summit on Friday. They conducted interviews across 16 agencies and analyzed federal employee survey data to identify 10 characteristics that best foster innovation. Their report profiled five agencies that have used many of the characteristics to implement successful innovation initiatives. 

“While innovative ideas are often stifled by a lack of leadership support, bureaucratic barriers and the absence of incentives and resources, there are many bright spots across the federal landscape,” the report stated. “There are agencies rising to the challenge—creating environments where new ideas are encouraged and are flourishing in areas dealing with national security, global development, health care, federal procurement and space exploration, among others.”

The report cited the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, which found 60% of civil servants feel motivated to come up with new and better ways of doing things, compared to 76% in the private sector. Based on their research, the Partnership and Slalom found that innovation thrives in federal organizations that:

  • Have leadership support;
  • Embolden employees’ creativity;
  • Take away barriers to be effective;
  • Take small bets on new ideas and learn from mistakes;
  • Establish a process to carry out initiatives;
  • Use expertise from other federal agencies and outside industries;
  • Focus on customer experience;
  • Align innovation projects with agency goals; 
  • Have strong business and management practices; and, 
  • Adapt to change.

One example highlighted in the report is the Homeland Security Department’s procurement innovation lab. Since federal procurement can be a lengthy and complicated process, employees can “bring their innovative procurement approaches to the lab, and the consultants help them think through their ideas, determine the challenges and limitations, and ensure that the right parties are involved so that ideas can be properly executed.” As of mid-2019, there were over 35 projects in the lab. A completed project helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency modernize its technology for national flood insurance.  

Another initiative spotlighted was the State Department’s virtual internships, which allow students to work for the agency in a capacity that fits their schedules and locations. Recruiting young talent has been a long-term problem for the government. Traditional internships—that can be the pathway to jobs—often discourage many from applying due to time, money and housing constraints. The Virtual Student Federal Service internship program, which began at State and is now at 55 agencies and offers 600 internships annually, seeks to remove those barriers. “That need and that openness” to allow students to work remotely “grew like wildfire,” said Nora Dempsy, senior adviser for innovation at the State Department, during the summit.  

According to the report, “Interns are involved in a wide variety of tasks, including creating podcasts about government services; developing data visualization and graphic design projects; managing social media sites; conducting research; and engaging in language translation, writing and editing.”

Other agency programs profiled in the report are the Veterans Affairs Department's Diffusion of Excellence to solicit best health care practices, Defense Department’s “tours of duty” for digital service, and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s venture capital-style program to test and finance solutions to global problems. 

“It’s cool to see the different flavors of change you can bring out—some operational and in the moment, others contributing to the grander scheme of health,” said Blake Henderson, acting director of Diffusion of Excellence, while reflecting on his agency’s innovation efforts. 

The Partnership and Slalom said the framework and profiles in this report provide “a template for federal leaders to create a climate that both welcomes and pursues new approaches to better serving the needs of our country.”