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Innovation in Government Dips

Analysis shows employees are motivated to improve their performance but don’t feel empowered.

Federal employees want to do their jobs better but don’t believe their agencies are adequately supporting them, according to a new analysis.

Ninety-one percent of federal workers are motivated to improve their job performance while 57.2 percent reported feeling encouraged by their employers to do so, the study from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and consulting firm Deloitte found. Four out of 10 employees, or 36.3 percent, said their agencies rewarded creativity and innovation.

The government’s overall innovation score dipped 1.7 points, to 61.5 out of 100 points between 2011 and 2012. The analysis is part of the Partnership’s annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings and is based on the Office of Personnel Management’s 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. That survey includes feedback from more than 687,000 federal employees representing 362 agencies and subcomponents.

“Government is slipping on innovation at a time when its ability to be creative is paramount, given the increasing needs for its services and the reduction in available resources,” the report stated. Survey questions related to innovation asked respondents about opportunities at work to improve their skills, feelings of personal empowerment, incentives for providing superior products and services, respect for their agencies’ senior leaders and participation in decisions affecting their job.

The government should not be “satisfied or comfortable” with a 60ish score on innovation,” said Dan Helfrich, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP and head of its federal strategy and operations and human capital practice. “I see little reason why [strong results] can’t accrue to a broader set of government agencies, and therefore raise the overall score.”

Federal employees also scored 13 points lower overall than their private-sector counterparts when asked if their organizations encourage them to come up with ways to improve operations. One bright spot for the government: Several individual agencies, including NASA and the Surface Transportation Board, received scores higher than the private-sector benchmark, the analysis found.

The innovation scores of most agencies decreased between 2011 and 2012; however, about one-third of those included in the survey, including NASA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Transportation Department showed improvement. NASA was the top-ranked large agency on innovation for the third year in a row, while the Federal Trade Commission and Surface Transportation Board took top honors among mid-size and small agencies, respectively.

The Social Security Administration, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Federal Maritime Commission lost the most ground on innovation in their respective categories between 2011 and 2012, according to the Partnership’s snapshot. SSA’s score dropped 3.8 points to 61.6; NRC’s score fell 4 points to 69.9 and the Federal Maritime Commission lost 12.7 points for a score of 51.4 in 2012.

The Homeland Security Department ranked lowest on innovation among the large federal agencies, with a score of 52.7 points. Low morale has been a problem for DHS since its creation in 2003, although job satisfaction has improved since 2006, according to a November 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office.

The analysis encouraged federal managers to stress the importance of innovation, share specific examples of success with employees, solicit feedback, and offer “appropriate” incentives to reward innovation. “Give employees an avenue for sharing new ideas in team meetings, brainstorming sessions, or launching an employee competition,” the study said. “If an idea isn’t yet ready for implementation, don’t shoot it down immediately. Help employees refine the idea.”

Helfrich said innovation is not a consistent priority across government, but it should be, especially since testing ideas doesn’t require new funding or new people. “Creating a culture of innovation is the single least costly and most impactful way to improve government performance that we have at our disposal,” he said.