Want to improve government? Ask employees for ideas

Presidents, politicians and policymakers come and they go. But what’s permanent in Washington, D.C. is the conversation about making the government bureaucracy work better, faster, cheaper and smarter.

In recent months, there have been calls to transform government and “unleash the creativity of the private sector to provide citizen services in a way that has never happened before.”

Technology executives are looking for ways to modernize government. Congress is looking at ways to re-shape government, and even are considering far-reaching approaches like privatizing the Federal Aviation Administration and expediting the Food and Drug Administration’s drug approvals, to name just a few. Also important in the equation are hiring freezes and budgets cuts that will require agencies to further stretch already strained human and financial resources.

Will these new transformation efforts succeed or at least improve the way government works? It’s anyone’s guess at this point. But one thing is certain — there are many smart, committed and hardworking Americans in the federal government. And their brainpower must be part of the solutions.

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Consider this: 51 percent of federal employees have at least a college degree according to the Office of Personnel Management, compared with 35 percent in the private sector. And more than 50 current or former federal employees have received Nobel Prizes.

So for agencies to be successful amid the demands for change, it’s clear that agencies should tap employees for new thinking and creative ideas. But many factors make it difficult for federal employees to have their ideas heard and implemented.

And we aren’t just guessing. Our recent research finds that government leaders are not fully tapping the brain power of federal employees to help address some of the federal government’s most pressing challenges. In a poll of federal employees, we found that 72 percent of federal employees say that their agency rarely or never seeks their ideas for improvements. The research also revealed that 63 percent of federal workers who don’t believe their agency channels workforce creativity say they are likely to leave their job in the next year.

We also learned that nearly half (49 percent) of federal workers say their agency might be open to ideas, but they are unclear of how to submit them, while nearly a quarter (24 percent) say they don’t think their agency has any mechanism in place at all for submitting ideas. This means that nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of those surveyed could see their ideas for improvement never progressing beyond the casual conversation.

In terms of barriers, we learned that the top perceived barriers to organizational innovation are related to agency leadership, bureaucratic inertia, leadership resistance to change and a lack of leadership.

Overall, this poll tells us that across the federal government, it is difficult to bring forward, consider and implement employee ideas. It also tells us that idea barriers can have serious negative implications on the federal workforce, taxpayer services and U.S. competitiveness at a time when it is essential to tap employee ideas to find ways to innovate, do more with less resources and sustain morale.

So what is the path forward? Agencies can make big strides by creating an “ideas culture,” one where agencies actively seek, embrace, act on and reward employee ideas to innovate and achieve its goals.

For an ideas culture to flourish, leadership must become comfortable with taking risks and the possibility of failure. With championing from the top, accountability for supporting ideas can then flow through the organization by including related metrics in individual performance plans.

But creating an ideas culture may seem daunting, especially within a large bureaucracy. And already, there are big picture “innovation hubs” across the federal government. While these organizational efforts are important, some say the hubs’ information and ideas are not trickling down and can be siloed apart from an organization.

So in tandem with any agencywide initiatives, agency leaders are wise to embed an innovation and ideas culture within the DNA of each and every office and employee.

Here are four easy-to-implement ways for agency leaders at all levels of government can begin to foster an ideas culture in an agency — within their scope of authority and without more money:

  • Implement employee feedback surveys and working groups to identify ideas culture gaps. Here, leaders can work within their scope of authority to kick-off an ideas culture by surveying employees (even anonymously) to better understand their views and perceptions about the agency’s ability to solicit and implement ideas. Working groups can go even deeper by fostering a dialogue on issues, gaps and barriers to an ideas culture. For example, leaders may learn that there is ad hoc idea sharing among employees, but employees need a more formalized process to solicit, vet and implement ideas. Working groups also could identify gaps in quantifying the impact of any employee ideas that are implemented. Given shrinking government budgets, it’s critical to demonstrate the impact of ideas and the return on investment for building an ideas culture.
  • Create innovation committees. Armed with employee feedback, leaders can establish formal committees charged with soliciting, vetting, tracking and potentially implementing employee ideas. These committees should have diverse representation and must have clear responsibilities, goals and resources. The committee also can serve as the hub to recognize and reward employees who submit ideas. A formal committee coupled with rewards empowers individuals to come forward with their new and innovative ideas while promoting and supporting the adoption of new ideas throughout an organization.
  • Developing innovation competitions, both formal (at set times during the year) and more fluid (ongoing online review, input and voting on ideas), can kick-start the solicitation and refinement process. For example, encourage employees to identify inefficiencies and offer their own solutions. This not only gives employees an open door to share their thinking, but also helps build buy-in for adoption of a new way of doing things. Adding a competitive edge on ideas can help make idea-sharing an engaging process. Here again, rewards and recognition of competition “winners” demonstrates that ideas are valued and can help ignite more ideas.
  • Set up collaboration and social networking tools (such as Yammer groups) and ideas management software platforms. These are low-cost and easy-to-implement ways to solicit and keep ideas alive and organized for input, collaboration, and application. Social networking tools also allow employees to build upon each other’s ideas. By building an open platform for idea sharing, organizations set the stage for collaboration across geographic locations in an increasingly dispersed world. In addition, online platforms encourage even the quietest employees to speak up and share their ideas. And once again, these tools can be used to recognize employees for innovative ideas — a key component of building an ideas culture.

In addition to these steps, it’s important to remember that an innovative workforce starts with building innovation into your recruitment strategy. Even before the recruitment and interview process, leaders can identify specific traits associated with innovative thinking to more easily recognize candidates who will bring ideas and creative thinking to an organization. Once an “ideas culture” employee is on board, leaders can foster creative capacity by offering training to develop these skills and participation on innovation committees.

Federal employees won’t have all the answers, but you can bet important and impactful innovation ideas are there. The challenge is modifying the federal culture — agency by agency, office by office, and leader by leader — to bring innovation forward and to life.

Melissa Jezior is the founder and CEO of Eagle Hill Consulting.