OPM Innovation Lab Can't Say If It's Actually Helpful, GAO Finds

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The two-year-old lab is prepping to launch several deep dive projects.

An innovation lab at the Office of Personnel Management isn’t taking enough steps to ensure its innovative work is having a real impact on agency culture and performance, according an audit report released on Wednesday.

OPM built the innovation lab at a cost of about $1.1 million as a space where lab staff and other OPM employees could bring innovative design concepts, emerging technology and calculated risk taking to bear on thorny agency problems.

During roughly two years since the lab’s launch, staff has held numerous training sessions there and is preparing to host long-range “immersion projects” during which employees would spend up to six months working on a single wide-ranging project with a broad impact on the agency.

Lab staff has fallen short, though, on measuring the impact of its work and gauging how helpful its classes are for employees, the report from the Government Accountability Office said.

“Measuring the long-term outcomes of innovation labs is a prevalent practice for building acceptance and demonstrating the value of the labs,” the report said, citing best practices from numerous government innovation labs, including the MindLab in Denmark.

Showing results can often be difficult for an innovation lab, the report acknowledged, because the metrics for successful innovation may vary from project to project. Successful labs often measure output during their first few years -- number of users and classes held -- then proceed to more sophisticated measurements once they have a track record to base those measurements on, the report said.

OPM’s innovation lab has tracked output to some extent but could be doing much more, the report authors said. They also dinged OPM for not cooperating enough with other federal innovation labs. OPM generally agreed with the auditors’ assessments.

The report comes amid a general sense that innovation is vital for government to maintain services despite budget constraints but also that innovation, and especially risk taking, are not rewarded in government.

“OPM’s 2013 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, released in November 2013, found that only 35 percent of federal workers believe that creativity and innovation are rewarded,” the report said, “with positive responses in this area showing a steady decline of six percentage points over the past three years.”

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