Commentary: Every Federal Agency Needs an Innovation Lab

Brian A Jackson/

Safe places to think and act outside the bureaucratic box.

More than five years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama vowed to “make government cool again.” Since then, he has advocated vocally for technology and innovation, inspiring advancements that have reduced waste and delivered services more effectively to the American people. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, digitized its disaster recovery, enabling some 304,000 survivors of Hurricane Sandy to register for assistance through mobile apps. The outcome? Better, faster results at a lower cost to taxpayers.

But there is only so much President Obama and his administration can do to advance innovation using a top-down approach. The recent increase in government innovation labs represents a dedication by agency leadership to an important procedural and cultural shift. Establishing a lab in every agency, large and small, would give all employees a safe place to think and act outside the bureaucratic box, test disruptive ideas, elicit expertise from across and outside of government, and innovate from the ground up. 

Successful private sector organizations continually change their products, services and the ways they do business to fuel growth and secure their bottom line. Take Google, for example. It encourages employees to “spark with imagination and fuel with data,” and to “strive for continual innovation, but not instant perfection.” A few pioneering agencies have taken a page from the playbook of “cool” companies like Google to create innovation labs—places where unconventional thinking is encouraged and facilitated to develop better policy solutions.

There are several models of innovation labs across corporate, academic, and governmental organizations, but they generally consist of a dedicated space and procedural framework to develop and test creative solutions. The methodologies used in innovation labs rely on design principles, which can also be applied to policies, processes, services and experiences.

Last year, the Office of Personnel Management transformed a 3,000 square foot basement into an innovation lab, with inspiration from design experts at IDEO and the Luma Institute. The space is now used to solve problems both within OPM and for human resource issues across government. OPM is also developing a training curriculum to educate employees about human-centered design and the potential for a more citizen-centric government.

I worked for the Homeland Security Department from 2010 to 2012. During this time I learned a thing or two about the uphill battles federal agencies face when they attempt something radically new. I saw examples of innovation being driven by senior leaders, but for most employees it was nearly impossible to get things done quickly, creatively or collaboratively. My increasing interest in bringing private-sector efficiency and innovation to government management led me to pursue graduate studies at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

I interned at the Labor Department this summer to see if they shared DHS’ barriers to innovation. Working for Xavier Hughes, Labor’s chief innovation officer, I supported efforts to innovate through mobile app development, civic hacking events and engaging with private-sector experts. The department even participated in the National Day of Civic Hacking and brought in developers to help it connect with women veterans. Labor has leadership that proactively leads standalone efforts to innovate, but the agency still lacks a culture of change. To really bring Labor, DHS and the rest of the federal government into the 21st Century, we need to disrupt the way they do business.

There’s no one-size-fits-all model. Every agency should identify its unique challenges and culture, study best practices, continually measure impact and make course corrections along the way. Without these advancements, the government will continue lagging behind other sectors. Innovation labs may be the ticket by which agencies can generate new ideas, execute them in a more organic way and bring about meaningful change from the inside out.

Amelia Mann is an Ash Center Summer Fellow, a 2015 MPP Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a 2015 MBA Candidate at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

(Image via Brian A Jackson/