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Federal Coach: Want to drive innovation in your federal agency? Start with leaders at the top

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Whether you're a leader in the public, private or nonprofit sector, you are undoubtedly facing the same challenge. It may be described as 'the need to innovate', 'continuous improvement', 'process reengineering' or some other buzzword. Whatever the label, the definition is the same: Do more with less and do it better.

Last month, Forbes magazine published the results of a study examining the world's most innovative companies. It should come as no surprise that companies like Amazon, Apple and Google were among the top 10.

And the driver behind those innovative companies and results? Leadership. As the innovation experts Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen, who completed the research underlying the article noted, "a leader's everyday actions are one of the most powerful signals to their team and organization that innovation truly matters."

Making the leap from the private sector workplace to the public sector can sometimes be a challenge, but my organization - the Partnership for Public Service - just completed some research with the Hay Group examining the drivers of innovation in government.

Examining six key questions from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, we found the same insight: Leadership is the key to employee commitment, and ultimately to innovation and results. Unfortunately, there’s a big gap between federal employees’ interest in innovation and the extent to which their leaders actually encourage and reward those who show creativity.

On the bright side, we can look to those achieving some success to derive lessons for the rest of government. One example is the good work at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Last year, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, and a small coalition of the willing launched a new innovation awards program – HHSInnovates. Running twice a year, the program encourages, identifies and celebrates HHS employees’ innovations around improving service delivery to Americans. Even better, the program shares best practices and lessons learned across the department.

The HHS employees honored earlier this year should serve as a source of inspiration within HHS and across our federal government. Those honored found new ways of using electronic health records to provide near real-time surveillance of the H1N1 flu in American Indian/Alaska Native populations, and developed a web-based tool for tracking progress on key activities at the Food and Drug Administration and making the information available both internally and to external stakeholders and the public.

Similar to other agencies, the HHS employees faced resource constraints, organizational silos and packed schedules, but they overcame those obstacles. Consistent with our research, the HHS program appears to place a heavy emphasis on investing leaders’ time in these efforts – particularly the secretary’s and the chief technology officer’s.

Before you launch your own agency innovation program, start by working with your human resources team to analyze your agency’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results relative to the six innovation questions identified in the new report. From there, you can work with your leadership team and employees to determine the best strategies.

Based on our research, I suggest that as a federal manager you might also think about how best to foster an environment that encourages creativity and the freedom to do good work. There are a number of basic but essential steps, and they include giving employees a sense of personal empowerment over their work processes; providing employees with opportunities to demonstrate their leadership skills; giving them respect; and recognizing those who providing high-quality products and services.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Aug 12, 2011 at 12:12 PM


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