Innovation: A Dirty Word in the Federal Government

The Partnership for Public Service, Deloitte and the Hay Group, as part of an analysis of the 2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government data looked at innovation trends from the eyes of federal employees.

The results released in April 2015, were not surprising. Innovation is a dirty word in the federal sector. Here are some of the findings:

• Innovation scores in the OPM Federal Viewpoint Survey have decreased by their largest margin since innovation trends started being tracked in 2010.
• A key dynamic driving low innovation is the fact that only 47% of federal employees have high respect for their senior leaders.
• Another disincentive for innovation in the federal government is the notion that only 40% of federal workers have a feeling of personal empowerment about their jobs.
• Adding insult to injury, just 46% are satisfied with their involvement in decisions that affect them at work
• Probably the most toxic effect on innovation, only 42.5% of federal employees are recognized for providing high quality products and services.
• When private sector employees were asked to rate their innovative work environments, they scored their organizations 14 points higher than federal workers.
• The biggest death sentence to innovation according to a Deloitte survey of 3,200 millennials in the USA, Europe and other developed countries, 67% of them said an organization’s reputation for innovation is an important factor when deciding whether to work for them.

Some reasons innovation fails so miserably in the federal government may be due to lack of the following:

• Firms possessing internal technical expertise were found to be more innovative than firms without such expertise. Bigoness, W. J., & Perreault Jr., W. D. (1981). A conceptual paradigm and approach for the study of innovators. Academy of Management Journal, 24(1), 68-82.

• Passion (individual intrinsic motivation) is one of the most important factors in predicting creativity, along with industry expertise and knowledge. Sasser, S. L., & Koslow, S. (2012). Passion, expertise, politics, and support. Journal of Advertising, 41(3), 5-18.

For innovation to thrive, organizations need the following leaders that are:

• Balanced, people-focused and must include a high tolerance for ambiguity and paradoxes. Nice and nasty at the same time like controlled schizophrenics. Buijs, J. (2007). Innovation leaders should be controlled schizophrenics. Creativity & Innovation Management, 16(2), 203-210.

Innovative organizations compete more and collaborate less:

• High innovation and high functionality groups used a more competing and a more compromising style; groups rated low used a more collaborating style. Groups with higher innovation and functionality scores collaborated less than their peers in the low rating groups on these parameters. Creative performance in teams is not achieved mainly by agreement but needs cognitive confrontation. Badke-Schaub, P., Goldschmidt, G., & Meijer, M. (2010). How does cognitive conflict in design teams support the development of creative ideas? Creativity and Innovation Management, 19(2), 119-133.

Innovation may not be a good fit for the federal government and its centralized bureaucracies:

• The relationship between leadership and innovation appears strongest in organizations that have a supportive culture for innovation and where organizational structures are de-formalized and de-centralized. Denti, L., & Hemlin, S. (2012). Leadership and innovation in organizations: A systematic review of factors that mediate or moderate the relationship. International Journal of Innovation Management, 16(3), 1240007-1-1240007-20.

Probably the biggest deal killer when it comes to innovation in the federal government, the inability to build inclusive workplaces:

• Research in social psychology suggests that flexibility to changing circumstances and innovation is better served by a “culture” that not only tolerates, but welcomes dissent and minority views. Such dissent—even when wrong—stimulates better decision making and innovation. Thus, the proper harnessing of dissent may provide a mechanism for creating unity without uniformity and for igniting the “spark” of innovation. Nemeth, C. (1997). Managing innovation: When less is more. California Management Review, 40(1), 59-74.

Start spreading the innovation gospel as a new way to the business. If not before you know it, the federal government may be out of business.

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