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Driving Innovation in Government: The Unsung Heroes

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Federal employees across the country are developing new vaccines, working to end homelessness, and serving the American people in countless other ways. You will never meet most of them, but we’ll introduce you to five who innovate, not because they have to, but because they have a deep sense of obligation to do so.

Albert Einstein once said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Sounds simple and straightforward. But in practice, this is hard, especially in government. Why?  

  • The complexity of government programs;
  • Lack of control over outcomes by any one government program or person;
  • Deeply entrenched cultures and ways of doing business; and
  • The constant about-face when new political appointees come and go.

The government leaders we highlight innovate because they care deeply about the people they serve. They are the types of public servants that often go unrecognized for their contributions. This article is dedicated to all the unsung heroes in government—individuals who do what they do and excel at the highest levels, not because they are told to, but because of their deeply ingrained sense of public service.

Leading By Example

Judge Gerald Ray of the Social Security Administration is one of those innovators. Over the past decade, the agency has experienced a significant increase in disability claims. What many people may not know is that over 2,000 different outcomes can be determined in a disability claim. SSA employees knew they had their hands full and that they needed to focus even more on processing delays and error rates.

To address this work challenge, and through Judge Ray’s leadership, SSA utilized multivariate probit analysis of their workload to effectively cluster cases by complexity based on case characteristics. SSA then assigned cases by cluster so employees could more easily process similar cases. By sorting and assigning cases in this fashion, rather than in a first-in, first-out order, SSA reduced re-work of cases by 7.7 percent and increased the speed at which cases were processed by 12.5 percent.

In another performance challenge confronting an agency, the Housing and Urban Development office responsible for administering the annual Continuum of Care homeless assistance competition was seeking to increase the number of beds available to the homeless while maintaining support services. Cliff Taffet, general deputy assistant secretary for community planning and development at HUD and his colleagues agreed upon a strategy to focus efforts on increasing available housing while agencies such as HHS would provide the needed supportive services, more in keeping with their respective roles. HUD began to award additional points to permanent supportive housing projects submitted in the competition to encourage the shift, but the proportion of awarded funds going to supportive services remained stubbornly high at about 50 percent. The innovation that made all the difference was to set aside funds as a “bonus pool” for new permanent supportive housing projects as an incentive instead of awarding additional points. A dramatic shift was set in motion and today almost 98 percent of the approximately $1.8 billion in available funds goes toward providing housing as opposed to services, a shift that has contributed to the progress made in reducing the number of homeless households and individuals on our streets.  

Lessons Learned

Throughout each of our interviews, one theme was consistent: Agency leaders must support a culture that empowers all employees to problem-solve without fear of repercussions. Leaders and employees alike should be able to celebrate “smart failure,” and leaders should consider ways for their employees to challenge conventional wisdom and freely innovate. An organization that doesn’t fail isn’t innovating.

Indeed, Cliff Taffet suggested: “There is more likely than not a solution to be found to almost any problem if motivated, knowledgeable people are given the opportunity, encouragement and support to pursue and implement it. If the culture of an organization is oriented toward problem-solving and not focused on maintaining the status quo, most anything is possible.”  

Tim Gribben of the Small Business Administration asserted that a key strategy for fostering a culture of innovation among employees was to clearly communicate the opportunities of this approach. Through the process of program evaluation, agencies create the means for empowering employees to articulate their own compelling reasons of why they should pursue innovation in improving program outcomes.  

Dr. Cynthia Mazur of the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggested as a model for fostering a culture of innovation the Japanese continuous improvement approach known as Kaizen (or structured rapid improvement), in which all employees are engaged in perfecting agency performance, not just an anointed few.

What Appointees Should Know

There are soon to be thousands of political appointees coming to Washington and we need to make sure we’re not hitting the rewind button every couple of years. We encourage these leaders to examine the innovation currently occurring in their agencies. If these initiatives are delivering results, embrace them, and build upon them.

For guidance, incoming political appointees should heed the innovators themselves. Mark Washington of the U.S. Department of Education put it this way: “Political appointees should check their assumptions at the door. They are inheriting the coveted opportunity to lead and partner with some of the brightest and most passionate individuals in the world. Political appointees should afford employees the opportunity to take calculated risks and support a willingness to learn from failure without blame. Leaders have to find the right balance of patience and persistence to challenge people to push past fear of the unknown.”  

For those appointees who see a need for a greater sense of innovation in their workplace, Judge Ray of SSA offers these words of advice: “An executive who wants to establish an effective culture of innovation must overcome the inertia of past initiatives by communicating a clear narrative to drive informed decision-making. The executive must ensure that subordinate managers understand how to make the myriad micro-decisions that will affect the desired change. So my advice is to delegate the crisis du jour, and focus on the big picture.”  

Jeffrey E. Press is the Practice Leader for Government Performance at Socrata. He is the former Deputy Director of Performance Strategy at the U.S. Department of Commerce and Senior Advisor at the U.S. Performance Improvement Council. John R. Malgeri, J.D., Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor to the Chief Human Capital Officer at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  He has also served as a National Treasury Employees Union Chapter President and as a member of the Board of Editors for the Public Manager.  The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not represent the perspectives of any federal agency or other organization.

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