Your employees could be your best source of new ideas, managers advise

Federal employees who think they have good ideas to improve some aspect of their agencies’ operations are increasingly getting chances to be heard. Thanks to the rise of crowdsourcing, agencies are coming to recognize that good ideas don’t always come from a few people in specialized positions.

Panelists at the Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va., discussed this trend in a panel called “Harnessing the Wisdom and Fueling Fresh Thinking.” ELC is produced by the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council.

“Change is coming. It doesn’t matter if we want it to. It doesn’t matter if we believe it should,” said moderator Mark Day, CTO of the Housing and Urban Development Department. The only thing that matters, he continued, is how we respond to the change.

Jonah Czerwinski, director of the VA Innovation Initiative at the Veterans Affairs Department, and also senior advisor to the secretary, urged the audience to look to their employees for solutions to problems.

For example, he said, consider an effort to use technology to improve the experience of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress and short-term memory loss, and trying to go to college on the GI Bill.

“The immediate response might be, ‘Let’s turn to the vocational rehabilitation [specialists] to solve that,’” he said. “That’s probably not the best place. The best place is the people who [encounter such veterans] on a daily basis.”

The innovation initiative is about making problems known to an audience of people who are likely to have ideas to solve the problems, Czerwinski said. “The last thing I want to do is preordain what that audience is,” he added. “It’s been said that specialization is for insects.”

Another said to the workforce-driven innovation is workforce-led adoption efforts, he added.

“There is definitely a problem with just having someone like me out there,” he said. “Busy people who have been in VA 15 years are going to say, ‘You’re going to be gone soon, I’m just going to let this one slide.’”

William Graves, chief biometric engineer for the Homeland Security Department’s United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program – commonly called US-VISIT – agreed that an agency’s workforce is often an untapped mine of innovative thoughts.

“Talk to your operational people, they will have the ideas,” he said.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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