Think You Know Which Agencies Are Most Innovative?

You’ll probably be surprised by some of the contenders in a new ranking.

It may not surprise many people that NASA is deemed among the most innovative federal agencies, but a study released Thursday points to a handful of other agencies that probably aren’t top of mind when people think about creativity in government.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, working with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Hay Group, used a 100-point scale structured around questions from the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to rank agencies in the area of innovation.

Among large agencies, the space agency’s employees were deemed most focused on improving fulfillment of the mission, followed by the State and Commerce departments. Among mid-size agencies, the most innovative are the Federal Trade Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the National Science Foundation. Top innovators among small agencies include the Surface Transportation Board, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the Peace Corps.

“These agencies are developing innovative cultures by rewarding creativity, by providing forums for employees to share and test new ideas, by encouraging responsible risk-taking and by bringing in outside talent for rotational assignments to infuse new ideas into the workplace,” the study said.

At the bottom of the innovators rankings among large agencies are the Intelligence Community, and the Homeland Security and Labor departments.

The rankings come at a time when the Obama administration, as announced in its fiscal 2016 budget, is calling for pilot projects on innovation at five agencies “to generate promising employee ideas that will improve government effectiveness and develop a culture of innovation that yields results.”

The Partnership’s analysts note that opportunities for innovation at prospective employers were cited by two-thirds of some 3,200 millennials in a Deloitte survey, millennials being a primary target of federal recruiters. Overall agency innovation scores, however, have fallen 4.4 points since the Partnership started measuring innovation in 2010, “coinciding with the overall decline in federal employee job and workplace satisfaction,” the study said.

“The topic with the biggest impact on the innovation score involved whether employees are recognized for providing high quality products and services,” the study said. “This was one of the lowest-scoring questions, with a rating of 42.5 percent out of 100. The second-most important factor contributing to employee views on innovation is whether they have opportunities to improve their skills.”

Asked whether some agency missions make innovation easier than for others, Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership, told Government Executive, “We’re not talking about the newest high-tech gizmo, but people looking for ways to do their jobs better and getting support from the organization or leadership,” he said. “No matter what the agency does, people always want that -- to not allow the past to define the future.”

NASA, he added, “uses innovation and holds people accountable when there is no margin for error, because people can die.”

Krystal Hall, a NASA human resources development specialist quoted in the study, pointed to the value of recognition awards to encourage smart risk-taking and a workforce that shares responsibility. “An innovative culture requires nurturing, which includes a combination of rewards, training and the proper workplace climate.”

The Partnership recommends creative awards, both monetary and nonmonetary, along with “idea incubator programs” championed by the Health and Human Services Department, as well as platforms to host challenges for users around the country to help solve and keep employees informed.

Correction: The initial version of this story misspelled Krystal Hall's name.

(Image via alphaspirit/