More can be done to promote innovation in government


The most recent Office of Personnel Management annual survey of federal employees doesn't show great changes when it comes to an important question, that of whether creativity and innovation are rewarded in the federal government.

Nearly a full third – 31.2 percent in the weighted responses – say they disagree or strongly disagree with that statement. True, 38.5 percent say they can agree or strongly agree. But, when the difference between positive and negative impressions of agency receptivity to innovation are nearly balanced, something's wrong.

Making generalizations out of those figures admittedly is complicated by the fact that we don't know who is making those responses. A perceived lack of room to be innovative among scientists is more troubling than the same state among a data transcriber. However, the past decade has seen the federal government steadily outsource (among other things) those lower-level jobs in the expectation that the remaining civil servants would be able to dedicate themselves to the more complex problems that do require innovative thinking. Despite the lack of detailed data (hey OPM, why?), the numbers are still an indictment.

Part of the problem may be systemic. Innovation and creativity are difficult to square with rigid hierarchies. They're antithetical – and hierarchy is inevitable in a place where power comes from proximity to the president. But the degree of hierarchy isn't set; it's possible to permit more of the type of peer-to-peer network organizations in which innovation flourishes best to take root within the federal government.

To its credit, the Obama administration has made a point of promoting innovation (as our FierceGovenrment Fierce 15 recognition of innovative feds and projects shows), and individuals have been able to create organizational pockets in which innovation flows.

But the OPM survey shows that more needs to be done. One place to begin would be to place less emphasis on flourishes of innovation, such as the recruitment of bright young outsiders  into temporary positions. That's fine, but it detracts from the more rewarding (albeit more difficult, as more rewarding things usually are) work of permitting innovation to grow within the ranks of existing employees. It  can be done; some of it has been done. More is needed. - Dave