Agency innovation: finding the winners


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Though feds themselves may perceive innovation to be declining, there are agencies within government working to be the change they wish to see in the federal space.

NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S Army, State Department and the Office of Management and Budget have all received national or — in the case of the U.S. Army — international recognition for their innovative strides. The Energy Department, though it has not attracted as much attention as the above-mentioned agencies, is also pushing innovation in government, and other federal agencies should think about following suit.

But what sets these agencies apart?

Empowering the right people:

One way to gauge federal innovation is to look at employee perceptions. The Partnership for Public Service’s report on federal innovation – a rather grim tale – used employee responses to six questions to measure innovation: Do employees feel rewarded for doing high-quality work? Do they have a chance to expand their skills? Do employees have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership? Do they have respect for senior leadership? Do employees feel satisfied with their involvement in decisions that impact their work? Do employees have a feeling of personal empowerment?

NASA, EPA, State Department and OMB all possess an institutional culture that empowers workers to innovate by recognizing, rewarding and encouraging bright ideas and hard work.

What the Partnership for Public Service report may have missed, which the Energy Department has adeptly honed, is private sector and academia empowerment. Two years ago, the Energy Department created Energy Innovation Hubs, pulling together top scientists from academia, industry and government to work toward the realization of the biggest U.S. energy goals, creating revolutionary energy technology.

The hubs mimic the confluence of expertise and resources that characterized the Manhattan Project, drawing together the top minds in integrated research centers across the country. This type of crowdsourcing can also be seen in, where the public can compete to solve some of government’s biggest challenges.

OMB is empowering the right people through budgeting. The 2013 budget prioritizes education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, preparing 100,000 STEM teachers over the next decade and recruiting 10,000 STEM teachers by 2014.

Finally, agencies can draw in talent from private sector, academia and nonprofits via the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program. Though a PIF’s tour of duty is relatively short (six to 12 months), pulling in these bright minds to solve agency solutions is not only innovative; it is cost-effective.

Innovation powerhouses:

Another underlying factor these agencies have in common? An institutional focal point for innovation. Whether it be a building, department or individual leader, each innovative agency has a group of people or a trailblazer to pioneer agencywide innovation.

At NASA, there is the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation. The CoECI identifies governmentwide needs and then creates innovative solutions to address them, sharing lessons learned, best practices and successful innovation methodologies with participating government agencies. The center also holds workshops on collaborative innovation best practices, publishes case studies and serves as the interlocutor for government and innovation research and initiatives.

OMB created the Partnership Fund for Program Integrity Innovation to fund pilot projects to improve federal assistance programs through reducing improper payments, improving administrative efficiency and service delivery and protecting and improving program access for eligible beneficiaries. Submitting ideas through is easy, and anyone with a great solution is eligible.

At EPA, innovation plays a role in almost every facet of the organization. Starting as early as 2002, the agency’s Innovation Action Council developed a strategy to achieve environmental progress through innovation. Through this framework, EPA has gathered state, local and tribal expertise as well as public input to solve key sustainability issues. Additionally, EPA uses challenges and a national award system to encourage and recognize their contributing innovators.

No matter which way you look at it, instituting a culture of innovation requires a driving force capable of inspiring the right people and advancing their important ideas.


When you come up with a great idea or technology — take a lesson from the U.S. Army and patent it.

Recognized as one of the 2012 Top 100 Global Innovators by Thomson Reuters, the Army earned this international title for patenting more than 300 new technologies in a three-year period. The U.S. Navy was also recognized for possessing more than 100 innovative technology patents. More than patenting, both these service branches received recognition because their innovative technologies fueled additional research and promulgated technological innovation.

Patenting new technology can help other innovators in their research, but it also helps to give credit where credit is due – which, as the report from the Partnership for Public Service has pointed out, is an important determinant of innovation for employees.


There are many reasons why some agencies excel in innovation and others do not. But identifying a few unifying factors of success could help agencies lacking innovation find a jumping-off point.

Many of the most accomplished agencies in terms of innovation possess the following underlying qualities: an institutional culture that empowers employees, recognizing hard work and encouraging the development of solutions to agencywide problems; a method for drawing in expertise from outside government to create large-scale solutions; a driving force for envisioning, implementing and developing agency innovation initiatives; and a method for crediting, rewarding and facilitating future innovation.

-In this Story-

Agencies, Army, Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), Departments, Government IT News, Innovation, Management & Budget, Military, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Navy, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), State Department
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