Commerce invites employees to bring forth innovative ideas

Bruce Andrews, deputy secretary of Commerce

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The Commerce Department is one of five agencies that the White House chose to pilot an Idea Lab in fiscal 2016.

As part of the President’s budget request, Commerce would get $3 million to create this new office.

Bruce Andrews, the deputy secretary of Commerce, said the goal of the Idea Lab is to tap into the creativity of the department’s employees to improve mission delivery.

“Many of [our employees] have great ideas, but we need to give them a place to bring them and allow them to grow,” Andrews said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “We have an innovative culture where Secretary [Penny] Pritzker and our entire leadership team focused on how do we improve our organization and harness the power of our employees. We have a very active employee engagement program already.”

Andrews said another reason the White House chose Commerce to pilot the Idea Lab is because of how its mission is central to the administration’s priorities around areas such as improving patent processing, expanding opportunities for exporting American made goods and increasing manufacturing of goods in the country.

The Idea Lab isn’t replacing the administration’s Securing Americans Value Efficiency (SAVE) Awards. In July, OMB announced it was transitioning the governmentwide SAVE Awards to a program that is focused agency-by-agency.

“We are really trying to make it not just an award, but a part of the culture where innovation, creativity, and creating a safe space for employees to bring ideas, for other employees and leadership to give feedback and then being able to incubate and really put those ideas to work,” Andrews said. “This is not just looking for a one- off, but really a culture change by taking those ideas and making it real.”

One of five pilots

Along with Commerce, the White House requested funding for the departments of Education and Treasury, and the General Services Administration and the Small Business Administration to pilot the Idea Lab concept to create “a culture of innovation that yields results,” the budget documents stated.

These efforts likely will be modeled after the Department of Health and Human Services’ Idea Lab, which aims to remove barriers to employees who want to improve how HHS works.

Andrews said Commerce already has begun the planning for its Idea Lab by visiting HHS to better understand how it works.

“I think our folks came back very excited. I think there is a lot of good in what HHS is doing and they clearly have blazed the trail,” he said. “We will take that and work to make it for what’s unique about Commerce. Part of it is, HHS’s mission is a little more focused where we have a pretty broad mission in various different bureaus that sometimes seem unconnected, but actually have great synergies in working together.”

Andrews said if Congress approves the request, most of the funding would go toward building the team and tools, and to engage the nine bureaus to provide ideas.

“We have not sketched this out yet,” he said. “I think we will look at the HHS model and sit down and say what can we do to make it real within the Department of Commerce and what do we need in terms of resources. We can start and scale it up as we go along.”

Commerce also isn’t waiting on Congress to come up the $3 million.

Andrews said earlier this month the agency launched a new online ideas tool to solicit suggestions from employees. He said employees can review the ideas, vote on them, and if the idea receives more than a certain amount of votes, the department or bureau will respond to the suggestion.

“What we expect is for employees to come in with really creative and frankly interesting ideas that other people may not have thought out or perhaps haven’t received as much consideration as they should. I’m hopeful we will really be able to take advantage of the great creativity of our employees,” he said. “This is permanent. The beauty of this is it’s something that is not a one-off, but something we can commit to and have out there as an opportunity for our employees to engage.”

Andrews said in the first day alone the ideas tools received 50 ideas and more than 100 votes.

$6 million for digital services

Other agencies have held similar programs. GSA, for example, launched the “Great Ideas Hunt” in May 2012 and received more than 600 ideas. It implemented five of the most popular and expects to save more than $5 million.

Andrews said Commerce already is looking at how they can incorporate the ideas within their existing funding authorization.

“We think this is a great idea and something that will both improve the department and really engage and get our employees excited and involved in harnessing their creativity,” he said. “One of the great things about this is it really is very employee driven. Before we start deciding what it’s going to be or not be we want to go out to our employees and really have a conversation and solicit their ideas.”

Along with the Idea Lab, Commerce requested $6 million to set up a digital services office.

Andrews said the digital services group isn’t directly related to the Idea Lab, but will have a similar goal of improving Commerce mission outcomes.

“We are constantly focused on how we make sure we have the best quality IT for our employees,” he said. “The White House has already piloted the USDS and there is a great deal of demand within the government for that because you have a really great team of IT professionals who can come in and be helpful. We are looking at that for the Department of Commerce level to supplement the CIO team.”

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