Innovation Labs in Government? Silicon Valley Comes to Washington

Recently, there’s been some debate about creativity – or lack thereof – within the Government workforce. However, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is taking a new approach to fostering innovation. OPM has brought (or bought) a piece of Silicon Valley into its Washington, D.C.-based headquarters.

The Washington Post reports that OPM has created an employee Innovation Lab, similar to that of a San Francisco Internet start up, within its age-old Government office building.

As the “human resources (HR) agency for the executive branch of the federal government,” OPM may be on the brink of setting a new workplace trend which brings Uncle Sam into the 21st century work space. &

“Descending into the subbasement, visitors will discover a portal to Silicon Valley – albeit a figurative one,” says the Post. OPM’s new Innovation Lab is “a pristine work space that brings the breezy, open-environment style of Silicon Valley straight into the industrial bowels of government.”

OPM reportedly spent $750,000 on “improvements and construction cost” for the Innovation Lab, according to the Post. Footnote: “The space is open to employees across the federal government, but the OPM staff has scheduling priority,” the Post reports.

This all raises some interesting questions:

1) Do government agencies need to spend scarce resources on “Innovation Labs” to enhance workplace creativity?

2) Will the cost – three quarters of one million dollars for OPM – be justified by meaningful results?

3) Generally speaking, how much does a work space matter in terms of generating creative ideas and fostering greater innovation?

OPM certainly deserves accolades for not only thinking outside-the-box, but acting outside-the-box as well – which is a rare occurrence within the federal bureaucracy. However, only time will tell if the newly minted Innovation Lab will lead to meaningful results that save money for taxpayers while improving workforce performance through enhanced creativty and cutting-edge ideas.

As Government employees, let’s hope so.

*** All views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only.

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I think it makes a lot of sense. Government spends a ton of time in meetings, off-sites, planning, strategic planning discussions and there is a great need to have its own space to ensure coming up with great solutions.

Space matters a ton from getting your brain in the right format to recruitment/retention. Just think about how different you feel yourself whether you live in a studio or 1-bedroom or house and how nice it is furnished and decorated

Terrence (Terry) Hill

I would like to see the government adapt more of a “co-working” space attitude. Why does each agency have to have their own unique space. Why don’t we share between agencies? Also, what’s wrong with virtual space? Why don’t we use “hangouts” to solve problems? Why do we still feel compelled to always gather in a room in the basement of a government building?

I do commend OPM for setting up their Innovation Lab, and for experimenting with initaitives like ROWE, but we also need new models for collaboration that brfeak the stovepipes between agencies and the barriers of virtuality.


Good point Terry. Not sure how it will work – but would be great if has a cross-gov focus such as co-working capability (maybe 1 day a week) or book appointments to use it

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the awesome comments, Steve and Terry. You both make excellent points. Unfortunately, as we know too well, the federal bureaucracy moves at a snail-like pace — and that’s being nice to the snail!. But with increased telework, innovation labs, BYOD, video confs, etc., at least it appears that we’re moving in the right direction (although it’s not as if there’s much of a choice for Govt to do so).

Virtual and/or shared work space, for example, would probably save the Government hundreds of millions of dollars in leasing costs for all the colossal brick-and-mortar structures managed by GSA (some buildings are already dilapidated and sick anyway). I think this will all happen eventually, just not any time soon. Then again, one never knows.

David B. Grinberg

So has anyone had a chance yet to check out OPM’s Innovation Lab? I plan to visit there the next time I have a meeting at OPM. If any GovLoopers have personally used it, please share your views about the experience. Has Silicon Valley-like work space really come to Washington to spark innovation? Or is this just a faint figment of our collective imagination?

Elizabeth Fischer Laurie

GSA has been trying to focus on this in my region under the auspices of space reduction. We have a hoteling space and are encouraged to use it in much the same way the innovation lab is used. Some days it is packed and there are lots of lively and productive conversations going on; other times it is completely dead. I think getting people on board can be tough.

I like to head up there occasionally for the nice views (it’s the 14th floor) and a change of pace. It definitely helps to shift my focus back to being productive and team-oriented.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks for the feeback, Elizabeth. Thus far, the consensus appears to be that work space does matter and can have a positive , negative or neutral impact on fostering creativity and innovation — according to those who have commented and whom I’ve spoken with about this issue — as well as my own opinion.

I totally agree with you about having a nice view. While this may seem trivial and inconsequential to some managers, supervisors and co-workers, it is highly important to the creative process — especially if one is a creative person to begin with. It reminds me of the effect of having a window in your office versus a windowless office. At least for me, being able to look outside, observe and appreciate nature — whether it be the sky, sun, grass or whatever — helps to give me a quick mental break and reset my creative clock.

I understand this may not be the case with everyone, but it is for me and others. It also helps to put one’s chaotic and pressure-filled work situation in context by visually observing the “outside world” which adds a positive perspective to the “big picture”. Otherwise, it may feel to some as if they’re locked in a figurative jail with no escape — particularly if one happens to be claustrophobic and/or if a micro-managing supervisor values clock watching (or being a figurative warden) as much, or more than, productivity and results).

Thus, I think that open and creative work spaces do matter (to some more than to others), which is why all the brainiacs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere apparently use them. Any reasonable work incentive(s) that inspires new and creative ideas, outside-the-box thinking, etc., makes a lot of sense for govt agencies or any organization — which I believe is a main reason why private sector companies hold periodic “retreats”.

You’re right that it may be challenging at times to get co-workers on board with the shared space scenerio, which is what makes OPM’s Innovation Lab even more attractive at first glance. Further, when one is in an innovation lab, there’s a narrowly focused goal to innovate (even on a subconscious level, perhaps). I’m sure OPM closely examined these effects/results via empirical data and research studies, etc., before making such a substantial resource investment.

Innovation labs make a lot sense to me compared to always having meetings and brainstorming sessions in staid — and often windowless — bureaucratic conference room in which the walls may appear to be closing in after an hour. This may actually hinder one’s incentive to promote creativity and innovation.

I plan on personally visiting OPM’s Innovation Lab soon, and will report back with more specifics and impressions. My initial impression, however (after giving this topic more thought), is that one cannot put a price on creativity and innovation. And we all know the govts everywhere can certainly use more of it during these challenging times.