At the Crossroads of Public Service and Innovation

InnovationIn the almost two dozen years that I’ve had the honor of working with Federal agencies providing Organizational Development consulting, I’ve been impressed with the quality of the people: their commitment to their jobs and the public they serve, and their interest in making broad leaps in innovation.

In celebration of Public Service Recognition Week, today I’d like to highlight some of the more amazing and bold innovations that have come from public funding, in public organizations. It’s easy to think about corporate America being the home of innovation, and our public entities as simply executing and upholding the laws. Collecting tolls and taxes. Of course, that would be a huge injustice.

Think NASA and our incredible history of space exploration.

In fact, in post World War II America, the role of the government in shaping innovation, through direction and timing, has been critical in six primary areas. The six areas are 1) the aeronautical industry, 2) the Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDC), 3) computers, 4) semiconductors, 5) The Global Positioning System, and 6) the Lithium battery.

In fact, while many of the improvements and refinements to the six areas were guided by private enterprise, history has shown that when the risks are too big, the outcomes uncertain or not commercially viable enough, private enterprise is hesitant to risk R&D dollars to fund innovation.

The high-tech industry was initially funded by the federal government in its urgent need during World War II to produce ballistic firing tables. That original computer, ENIAC, has long since been surpassed by innovations from the private sector, but the foundation laid by federal innovation is unmistakable.

Commercial trips to space? Thank NASA.

In the FFDRCs, the federal government created an infrastructure that helps strengthens America’s capacity for technological innovation. Arms length and independent from the government, these organizations have compiled an impressive array of scientific and technical innovation. In a 1995 study of the FFDRCs, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, concluded that the network of these centers “are able to address long-term problems of considerable complexity and to analyze technical questions with a high degree of objectivity borne of having renounced any possibility of selling products to the federal government or forming partnerships with those who do, while remaining outside of the federal government itself.” Among the present day FFDRCs: the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Lincoln Laboratory; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; the think tanks overseen by RAND; the Software Engineering Institute; the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; and the National Cancer Institute at Frederick, MD.

As impressive as the above list is, it is incomplete and doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. In fact, its a bit of misdirection by me.

The truth, is that everyday, in every federal agency, innovation takes place. It may not be big, notable or worth millions of dollars. But they innovate.

Unfortunately, not quite as much as they used to, according to Hay Group, who, as part of their analysis of the 2013 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® data, examined how innovative government is, which agencies excel in fostering innovation and what drives innovation in the government. While 90 percent of employees surveyed report they are always looking for better ways to do their jobs, the data reveal that only 54.7 percent feel they are encouraged to do so. Moreover, just one-third of federal employees (33.4 percent) surveyed believe their agency rewards creativity and innovation.

For a government with a history of innovating, this report, which shows a downward trend overall, is troubling but not damning.

For employees to continue to be motivated to innovate, the environment must change, and for managers already overloaded with day-to-day issues, this is difficult, but not impossible. From the Hay Group survey, here are their suggestions:

1. Share a vision

2. Prioritize innovation

3. Provide a forum

4. Build trust and serve as a mentor

5. Create a process for implementation

6. Assess outcomes and reflect

7. Recognize employees.

For those of us not in the Federal government, we can simply say thank you. Thank you for working on behalf of all of us. Thank you for your commitment and attention to keeping this a great country.

Please continue to innovate; to meet the challenges of our changing world, and to build platforms for commercialization.

Boxer Advisors, LLC is hosting a FREE webinar this Friday, May 9th on Innovation, and we invite you to join us for a 45 minute look at best practices, and ways to implement innovation in your organization.

Click here to register:

Hope to see you there!

Boxer Advisors, LLC, is a full-service consulting, training and coaching firm with more than 50 professional consultants, facilitators, and coaches and carefully selected partners providing services to Federal agencies and Fortune 1000 companies since 1996.

Contact us today to learn more.

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