Five Ways of Fostering Innovation to Drive Change in Government – Ideas Lab

By Gadi Ben-Yehuda December 9, 2013

One of the first tasks for government leaders is to foster a culture that is not only open to innovation, but actively encourages it.

Innovation touches every facet of our lives, from transportation to communication, from personnel management to office automation. This is especially evident in the public sector in how agencies provide services and meet their missions. As it happens, technology has enabled much of this innovation, but it also requires smart leaders who apply these technologies and drive change within their agencies.

Many government leaders have found a way to weave innovation into the fabric of their agencies.  At the federal level, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has hired an “Entrepreneur-in-Chief” while the Department of State has an Office of Innovation that reports directly to the Secretary. Further Maryland is but one state with a Chief Innovation Officer who reports directly to the Governor and ensures that the state government keeps pace with technology, citizens’ emerging needs while using innovative tools to effectively managing government programs and services. The single constant within these examples is that high-level officials are leading the charge to encourage and incorporate innovation within government.

Fostering a culture of innovation
One of the first tasks for government leaders is to foster a culture that is not only open to innovation, but actively encourages it.  Here are five ways government leaders can develop and invigorate such a culture:

  • Appeal both to internal and external stakeholders for innovation
  • Offer incentives for trying, and even more for succeeding
  • Allow people to fail
  • Create mechanisms for innovation
  • Institutionalize successful innovations

Appeal both to internal and external stakeholders for innovation.  Many mechanisms have been set up at the federal level for public sector employees to offer their suggestions for innovation. All federal employees, for example, may contribute to the ideation platform called the SAVE award, which asks for suggestions on how to save money across the federal government.

On an agency-wide level, numerous platforms have been established to tap the ingenuity of employees for ways to improve agency operations, including the State Department’s Sounding Board, and HHS’ HHSInnovates.  Both of these programs were established by agency leadership to ask rank-and-file employees for their input in improving or expanding how their agency meets its mission.  Many municipalities have also been looking to the private sector to help them innovate through app contests, while the federal government is currently in the second round of bringing in outside innovators through the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

Offer incentives for trying, and even more for succeedingThere are many ways for leaders encourage their employees to deliver more than their job description requires of them.  Though money is an obvious incentive, given the fiscal realities of today government executives will have to use other means of motivator staff to be innovative.  Often, simply acknowledging the importance of experimentation and encouraging it is enough to instill the spirit of innovation agency-wide. One effective way to accomplish this would be to include innovation as a routine part of employees’ annual review.  Further, recognizing successful projects goes even further to demonstrate that leadership values the time and talents required to successfully innovate.

Allow people to fail.  Government executives must sometimes provide cover for those who pursue innovation that fails. This is the necessary corollary to encouraging people to try new approaches and recognizing them when they succeed. The catchphrase in the tech industry is “fail fast.” Ideally, people learn from failures, use what they learn to enhance their next attempt, and share the lessons with others, so that each successive attempt at innovation is more likely to succeed. Punishing failure will inhibit innovation.

Create mechanisms for innovation. Many federal agencies have initiated one-off innovation programs, both for internal and external stakeholders.  Programs like HHSInnovates could be replicated across government and then incorporated into each agency’s standard operations.  Innovation programs will doubtless vary from agency to agency and each program should expect to evolve within an agency, employees are more likely to participate fully if they feel that their agency has an enduring interest in innovation.

Institutionalize successful innovationsFinally, after stakeholders have been encouraged to innovate, have been given permission to fail, and rewarded for success, and when they feel that there are opportunities to innovate and the avenues through which they can do so, government leaders should weave meaningful innovations into the fabric of their agencies.   The most cogent example, perhaps never to be equaled, is email.  A tool that few had heard of in the beginning of the Clinton Administration was indispensable before its end.

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