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Can Innovation Labs Transform Public Sector Work Culture?

In case you missed it, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has brought a piece of Silicon Valley’s high-tech entrepreneurial spirit to Washington in the form of a new and exciting Innovation Lab.

Since launching in March 2012, the Lab has been successfully utilized by employees from dozens of federal agencies ranging from NASA rocket scientists to the FDA’s Battery Working Group, according to OPM officials.

“The LAB @ OPM is both a practice and space which supports a growing government-wide community of innovators,” says OPM. “The Lab has hosted over 1,000 Federal employees from more than 50 Federal agencies” thus far.

(Pictured Above: OPM Innovation Lab. Photo courtesy of OPM)

From Buzzword to Mantra

The term “innovation” is no longer just the latest buzzword in government, but the new mantra for the public sector workforce. Although there’s no shortage of talk about all the benefits of innovation – as well as some good examples featured here on GovLoop — the larger question is this:

  • Is the public sector making significant progress towards creating a 21st century work culture with innovation at the core foundation?

The answer appears to be yes and no.

Despite OPM’s laudable initiative, there is still a paucity of action toward transforming the entrenched bureaucratic culture of yesteryear into a modern innovation-based work model on a systemic level. One key reason why is because old work habits die hard within government.

This is especially true considering that many “old-school” managers are change resistant by nature and remain intransigent about maintaining the status quo at all costs – even if it proves detrimental to much needed improvements across government.

Enter OPM

To its credit, OPM has taken the lead in trying to bridge this disconnect between old and new ways of working. However, more senior executive leadership is needed from every corner of the public sector workforce to make an innovation-based work culture a reality.

Again, transforming an antiquated bureaucratic work environment does not come easy or happen overnight, but OPM’s Innovation Lab is a much needed step in the right direction.

“The LAB @ OPM is both a physical environment and a program that fosters creative thinking and collaboration, and enables Federal employees to test early concepts before failures become expensive and cumbersome,” OPM says.

“The Lab teaches Federal employees a new way of thinking, and a different approach to problem solving, that moves quickly from understanding problems to generating ideas and testing new solutions.”

Unequivocal Commitment Needed

OPM says one key aspect of the Innovation Lab is experimenting with “human-centered design methods to promote more productive and cross-functional collaboration, generate better ideas, and focus on the users of the things we make in government, from regulations to websites, from service experiences to internal processes.”

But more innovation in government is not just good for its own sake. It’s also beneficial for recruiting and retaining the growing demographic of Millennials who will eventually comprise the majority of the U.S. labor force.

Therefore, an unequivocal commitment to innovation by top government leaders is needed to help compete with the private sector in attracting a new generation of young people to public service.

However, this may prove problematic because most Millennials don’t hold the institution of government in high esteem. This is evidenced by numerous national public opinion polls of Generation Y.

The Future is Now

Hopefully, more forward-thinking federal agencies will not only leverage the unique resources made possible through OPM’s Innovation Lab, but also consider creating internal innovation labs of their own.

This is of utmost importance because the future is now when it comes to bolstering innovation in government at all levels.

Moreover, there’s little time to waste due to the increasing need for government to keep pace with new and evolving mobile, digital and virtual technologies which are advancing a light speed.

OPM has set an excellent example of what needs to be done. Now it’s up to all government agencies to grab the proverbial bull by the horns and march lockstep into the 21st century world of innovation.

Both the government and the public we serve will invariably be better off for it.


*** NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public or private sector employer, organization or related entity.

David Grinberg is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Donna Dyer

I like the effort and idea of an innovation lab at OPM, but reading further about OPM’s lab–it took a year for them to introduce the lab to the workforce, another year to train people in human-centered design. That doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. And I can’t figure out if they will include external stakeholders in their work (such as potential employees or university career centers) in the same way the CFPB innovation office does with its technology projects. I hope they do–I’d love to help them test out USAJOBS 2.0!

David B. Grinberg

Donna: thanks very much for sharing your valuable feedback on this topic. You raise several interesting points to consider.

Tim Albright

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Claudia Escribano

Hi David, Very interesting post. I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and innovation in government of late because I recently ran into two obstacles to creativity. One had to do with contract requirements and one had to do with “optics” (that is: how would this be perceived outside of this room?). I plan to write a post about all this, so I’ll keep this comment short. But about the time I was wondering if creativity is possible in government, I heard about a new book called Creativity, Inc., in which Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, talks about what his leadership team has done to foster a culture of creativity within Pixar. Not surprisingly, it takes a laser-like focus on what inhibits and what promotes creativity, and a daily intention to create the kind of environment where creative people can collaborate and flourish. Catmull cites organizational obstacles to creativity, such as hierarchy and control, and provides examples of how Pixar overcame those obstacles.

I think the investment in the OPM Innovation Lab is a good first step at creating a culture of creativity within government. At least it sends the message that “creativity is so important that we’re willing to invest in it.” But I’m daunted by the steep climb ahead that will require undoing the very fabric of government, which is made up of the things that kill creativity–hierarchy, control, compliance, adherence to standards.

David B. Grinberg


Thanks so much for the excellent feedback, which is appreciated. That Pixar book sounds like a great read and I’ll definitely be checking it out. I agree with you that the OPM Innovation Lab is a good first step, especially since gov has to start somewhere. Yet I don’t think OPM has received enough recognition for its efforts.

You know that old saying, Rome wasn’t built in day!

Yes, there is “a steep climb ahead” — like Mt. Everest — but at least we are incrementally moving forward rather than stagnating or moving backwards. However, I’m not sure that fostering innovation and creativity “will require undoing the very fabric of government” — at least I sure hope not.

There’s already major innovation and creativity at some agencies, like NASA for instance. I think agencies like NASA and others which thrive on innovation and creativity have important lessons to teach the rest of gov because they have already done it right and continue to do so (despite severe budget constraints).

As Baby Boomers and Gen Xers ultimately leave government there will be a whole new generation entering the public sector workforce. These young people have been brought up with innovation and information technology practicality running through their blood streams. This is an age of innovation and, as history has shown, the public sector is always slow to catch up. New generations of workers won’t accept, much less revert back to, what they consider a Stone Age work mentality.

Thus many antiquated methods by which gov employees work today have to change as Millennials and Gen Z ultimately become the majority of the US labor force. They won’t have it any other way. Moreover, IT advancements will likewise force historic change in gov over time. The question is not “if” but “when” this change will occur in full force.

The good news is that we are living in an age of innovation, regardless of how long it takes gov to fully adapt. Yes, it may be a painstaking and slow process, but it will happen — just not soon enough.

Again, many thanks for your valuable comments!


David, thanks for the blog post. Although I haven’t had the privilege of using ithe Innovation Lab, I hear nothing but good things about it. I look forward to utilizing one of the Federal government’s cutting edge initiatives. More agencies need to follow OPM’s lead.

David B. Grinberg

Deadra: thanks very much for your valuable feedback, which is appreciated. I’m gald you agree that whatever gov can do to foster innovation throughout the public sector is certainly a must-do. Moreover, the antiquated bureaucratic work culture must change if gov wants to recruit and retain a new generation of workers — Millennials — to public service. This is especially important as Baby Boomers increasingly retire or otherwise depart from public service, leaving a so-called “brain drain” gov-wide. Thanks again!

Nick Halliday

Thanks for writing this. Independently I suggested that our office should have an innovation space – which was slightly whistling in the dark. So it is very useful to have a practical US example and some thoughts. Cheers

David B. Grinberg

Nick, thank you so much for your positive feedback. I’m glad you found this blog post to be helpful. Cheers to you as well, kind sir!

Ryan Arba

What a cool concept – thank you for sharing this. What excites me most about the OPM innovation lab is that it represents a move away from reactive management toward proactive management. Government agencies need to go beyond “improving” systems to re-imagining systems – and this structure seems to be a great way to facilitate that change. Great report!