Three Practical Steps for Fostering Innovation

How to translate ideas into reality despite the barriers.

Federal agencies are continuously aiming to meet expanding citizen demands, reduce costs and increase operational efficiency. There is no doubt that even incremental improvements can make an impact. More than ever before, employees and agencies are looking at innovation as a means to deliver public service for the future.

In fact, 45 percent of federal managers say they innovate to improve mission delivery and are motivated by the desire to be productive and contribute to solutions, according to a recent survey from Accenture and Government Business Council, which is a part of Government Executive Media Group. The reality, however, is that few agencies set aside time for brainstorming, which presents a major opportunity for improvement.

Agencies can unleash innovations that improve efficiency by championing ideas from across the organization, applying a structured approach to problem-solving, decision-making, and teamwork. Digital tools can help maximize the potential reach while fostering a collaborative culture.

While this sounds ideal, when federal managers were asked to grade their agencies’ support for creative ideas, only 8 percent rated their agency as “excellent,” and just 22 percent said the level of support is “good.” Unfortunately, this lack of institutional support hinders them from contributing ideas to their organizations.

There are numerous cultural and institutional barriers to creating an innovative organization in the public sector – the lack of financial rewards, a political environment and stringent agency controls to name a few. Perhaps one of the more pressing challenges is the need for leaders to be innovation advocates.

Harnessing individual power at all levels, establishing processes that translate ideas into reality and using technologies to fuel efficiency will move the pendulum and accelerate innovation. But it will require leaders to work across their organizations in new ways and embody the role of innovation advocate.  This includes: 

1. Getting creative about how to foster innovation in the federal environment. While the capacity to innovate is often attributed to characteristics such as open-mindedness, creativity and optimism, the government’s emphasis on following procedure can stifle this model. Agency leaders, however, can use this process-oriented culture as a foundation to build guidelines that help employees raise and implement ideas. It is important to note that employees often draw inspiration from their co-workers as well as other departments and agencies, so having these types of interactions are key.

2. Building a more risk-tolerant culture from the top down. A formal approach to innovation will help get employee creativity off the ground, and it will also allow the level of oversight needed for agency leaders operating in the public eye. After creating a formal process, leaders should ensure the message is effectively passed on to employees. Currently, innovation in the federal government is largely unstructured and unsupervised. Often, agencies fail to set benchmarks or innovation goals or track the performance of new initiatives.

3. Taking practical steps that will enable and maximize the culture shift. Greater leadership support and encouragement alone will not create innovation – it requires giving employees the resources they need to implement their ideas. Ensuring that employees have access to effective digital collaboration tools, setting concrete benchmarks for task completion and using data to track new initiatives can aid the process. Interestingly, only a small percentage of managers surveyed rated their agency’s digital collaboration tools (e.g., social media, mobile apps, cloud-based tools) as “excellent.”

In addition, agencies should also consider sharing or crowdsourcing ideas so that the broader agency population can weigh in on which innovations to pursue. As the best ideas emerge, agencies can provide organizational support and resources to put the idea into operation. There is no reason to be confined by walls or work schedules. Digital collaboration tools, such as social media, mobility or cloud-based sharing, can foster 24/7 innovation among employees and across agencies.

By taking on the role of innovation advocate, federal leaders will discover that innovation is really the output of a structured, yet flexible, process that introduces and prioritizes ideas that will yield the best outcomes.

Ron Ash is managing director of management consulting at Accenture Federal Services, working with agencies such as the State Department, Defense Logistics Agency, U.S. Postal Service and the Homeland Security Department.