Innovation among feds is alive and well

Steve Kelman shares some survey data on how career executives see innovation in their agencies.

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How much innovation is there among federal civil servants? My blogs over the years have presented numerous examples of situations where civil servants have developed innovations in their organization. Since 1985 the Harvard Kennedy School has presented an Innovations in American Government award, and FCW’s own Federal 100 Awards have showcased innovations in federal IT for almost as long. At the same time, there is a common view out there that “the bureaucracy” is a swamp of “good enough for government work” mediocrity and “we’ve always done it this way” inertia.

Thanks to cooperation from my colleague David Lewis of Vanderbilt University, who is conducting a survey of senior federal civil servants and appointees called The Future of Government Service, we now have some actual data to illuminate this question. The survey went to every member of the career Senior Executive Service, and Lewis let me include some questions on “innovativeness.” 

The first question was, “How many times in the last 3 months has somebody who works with you in [your agency] made an innovative suggestion for improving internal processes or procedures?” Only 9.5% said zero, 18.7% reported one such suggestion, and 32% said two to four. Yet 13% of respondents reported five to nine suggestions, 17% recalled 10-19, and 6.7% of respondents said their colleagues offered 20 or more suggestions. That’s a significant number of organizations reporting a large number of suggestions.

Respondents were also asked the fate of their agencies’ most-recent suggestion. The executives said 11% were not accepted, 26% were partly accepted and partly not, 45% were accepted with changes, and 17% were accepted completely.

Then the group was asked about two statements about the climate for or against innovation in their organizations:

  1. “The work environment at [my agency] supports the development of new and innovative ideas” (where the alternatives were ”disagree,” “neither agree nor disagree,” “agree,” and “strongly agree”) and
  2. “In my job, coming up with ideas for how to do the job better is…” (where the alternatives were “discouraged,” “neither discouraged nor encouraged,” and “encouraged”)

On the first question, the percentages endorsing each alternative were 11%, 16%, 43%, and 25%. On the second questions, the percentages endorsing each alternative were 5%, 18%, and 77%. So for both questions, a preponderance of respondents felt there was a favorable attitude towards innovation.

Finally, we asked whether respondents would describe the colleague who made the most-recent suggestion was “a more diligent employee than average,” “something of a rebel,” “highly respected in the organization,” “very meticulous in their work,” “something of a loner,” and/or “more skilled than most at what they do.” (Respondents could check as many boxes as applied.)

The two most common descriptions were “more diligent” and “highly respected,” followed fairly closely by “more skilled” and “very meticulous.” The “loner” and “rebel” labels got almost no responses. Those making suggestions seemed to be regarded highly – and well-integrated -- in their organization. The suggestion in the old classic In Search of Excellence that innovations come from rebels or outlaws receive little support here.

These results thus show a significant level of innovativeness and support for innovation among feds, although they doubtless overstate the actual presence of innovation. People probably look at the behavior of themselves and their colleagues in too favorable a light. In the most-recent annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, 44% of respondents -- all employees, not just SES -- agreed that “creativity and innovation are rewarded” in their agencies, which is relatively high from a baseline of assuming no innovation, but was still the eighth-worst score (in terms of a positive endorsement of their organization) among the 101 questions in the survey.

I have written previously on micro-innovations in government – everyday, non-dramatic improvement suggestions that are very far from the BHAGs (“big hairy audacious goals”) championed in private-sector innovation literature that often views innovation in a heroic light involving flashes of genius. I was surprised at how many readers took me up on that concept and endorsed it. I am guessing this is what most of the innovations in government look like. They are everyday improvements from everyday civil servants. That’s a good thing.

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