Why stability trumps innovation

This can’t be good. According to a recent survey by the Partnership for Public Service, 91 percent of federal employees are looking for ways to do their jobs better, but only 39 percent believe they will be rewarded for their innovation.

Are some federal managers so risk-averse, as one Federal Computer Week reader alleges, that they can’t tolerate creativity even if the alternative is mediocrity? Or do they lack the means by which to offer beyond-the-norm rewards for beyond-the-norm thinking?

It’s probably fair to say that as far as employees are concerned, there is no right answer.

Here is a sampling of readers’ comments on the topic. They have been edited for length, clarity and style.

No duh
I don't think we needed a study to arrive at this observation. We have plenty of empirical data to prove it. As a government program manager directly stated, "I have a contractor that doesn't cause me problems. I'm not about to risk my career for a promise of innovation." Risk-aversion is pervasive when your career is on the line. Under our current incentive models, stability will continue to trump innovation. Now how much did that study cost the taxpayers?
— Anonymous

Encouraged? Rewarded? I'd be satisfied if innovation was even permitted!
— Anonymous

No diversity
Most of the managers in the government are regurgitated, brought to the forefront by the buddy system. This has created an environment riddled with the same thought processes. If you are to be truly innovative, you must encompass thought that is diverse. We have become stagnant. Add onto that a culture that has been encouraged to be lazy and the perfect storm has been created.
— Fatnlo

The wrong message
Federal managers get recognized and rewarded for lots of things, some of which they actually do. But low-level contractors who bust their butts to fix bad federal decisions and actually make these systems work get invited to see the federal managers get an award (the bonus check is not publicly displayed).
— SOTE Contractor

No cause for hope
Federal workers must negotiate a sea of ever-changing policies and regulations, some of which are at odds with one another, and a 19th-century budget process that almost always misses the mark when matching real-time requirements to resources. Forget innovation — more often it's nothing short of a miracle that we are able to successfully deliver the services expected of us. Little wonder that there is a disincentive to change once we develop processes that actually or are perceived to deliver.
— Scott

But then again…
SOTE needs to get a better job. One of our contractors did a [modification] on a test program/accessory kit that saved the field and us a lot of time, and he said he got a small bonus for saving the Air Force money. It all depends on the contract and the contractor's management.
— RayW

Sorry, folks, but it's no different in private industry. Politicians rule, and they are risk-averse. Diversified companies discourage cross-divisional suggestions, not to mention innovation. So just hang in there.
— Texan

About the Author

John Monroe is Senior Events Editor for the 1105 Public Sector Media Group, where he is responsible for overseeing the development of content for print and online content, as well as events. John has more than 20 years of experience covering the information technology field. Most recently he served as Editor-in-Chief of Federal Computer Week. Previously, he served as editor of three sister publications: civic.com, which covered the state and local government IT market, Government Health IT, and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Sat, Sep 17, 2011 Ron Hill AFB

In our group we can innovate, with the caveat that we MUST conform (or at least don't get caught - wink, wink) to the flight line process including tool control, Tech Order following, unauthorized tools, etc.

We are engineering, tasked with solving problems that can not be solved by the field, and we are not on the flight line but in a clean lab. Does not make much sense for us to follow the same rules that do not work, but the military mentality, one size fits all and no brain strain for over paid inspectors from DC.

So the short response is that stability is only part of the issue, conformity and inspection check lists are also a big part.

Wed, Sep 14, 2011 Stanley

Its simple. Government for the most part is Bureaucracy, which by definition strives to successfully (optimally) implement the given tasks of an organization. In otherwords, Govt only works to make 'knowns' happen and thus fundamentally opposes unknowns, otherwise called innovation, risk-taking, etc. Rewarding innovation (or even striving to do much better than others) is against the very nature of Bureaucracy. So, of course, it doesn't work and thus mental, personnel, and organization dissonance occurs. Now imagine a small Govt organzition who's internal mission requires novel R&D (like a DoD or EPA research lab) within a much bigger Bureaucracy. Can you now guess why there are so many contractors offering the latest & graetest & only technology?

Wed, Sep 14, 2011 testpilot DC

John (below) is delerious that Fed workers are paid 75% of contractors. Contractors chomp at the bit to get a government job that pays more, asks less, and secures a job for life. Either you aren't privy to the contract information or you are undereducated in economics. A govie that makes $50/hr costs the government $75/hr with benefits. A contractor is paid less than 40% (includes benefits) of the $100/hr that the contracting company charges the government. A contractor is a temporary worker who is paid less than an equivalent govie. The Fed is willing to pay a premium to a staffing company in order to have a flexible workforce.

Wed, Sep 14, 2011 J Gray San Diego

Feds fear innovation for several reasons: "Rocks" their boat; process and procedures have to be changed and trained, standardization may be lost, communication will be required, teaming may be required, stovepipes and turf may be disturbed, efficiencies translate into less funding (good for taxpayer, maybe not for govvie - less labor, fewer people, fewer supervisors & managers, less promotion opportunity). Government is inherently self-serving. How many Feds do you know who are interested in voluntarily working themselves out of a job through enhanced productivity and greater efficiency?

Wed, Sep 14, 2011 Lisa NOVA

Outsourcing to butts-in-seat contractors has created the worst of both worlds: the govies that don't do anything have been hired by contractors to man the same seat at twice the cost to the gov't. But then add in the zero-sum game dynamic of these contractors competing with each other on a daily basis for task orders and workshare and you have an environment where no innovation occurs. Instead there is less cooperation between companies who are competing and it is more about making the other guy look bad. I think outsourcing is fine. But these blanket BPA's, IDIQ's, GWAC's do not foster innovation. It just locks the bad actors into this bad culture. There needs to be more of a move to streamlined performance based contracting. You deliver this, by this day, for this money, or you do not. Acceptance is based around requirements in the task order. If the procurement person screws up the task order and the end user doesn't get what they asked for (or the end user didn't do their job) there needs to be some sort of accountability or scoring. People with the highest scores get the repeat phone calls, get paid the higher labor rates. This would be the responsibility of a third party to judge (Quality Assurance). Once the accountability is there and the procurement process is set up in this fashion, innovation will occur, because the innovators will be rewarded. The do nothing BS artists will not.

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