The need for metrics

Implementing innovation in government

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At the Department of Transportation, management has given employees a new way to express themselves and share their ideas.

Through its IdeaHub web portal, employees can use a series of social media tools to submit new ideas, brainstorm, post questions and discuss the ideas that their peers have posted. The result is a powerful innovation tool that the Department of Transportation can use to improve its performance and its value to the US government and the citizens it serves.

Innovation is increasingly important as organizations in both the public and private sector move to improve their performance. Successful organizations innovate by developing and implementing new ideas, new products and new ways of doing business.

These innovations change how the organization does its work with the goal of improving its performance. Creative, future-focused organizations devote time and money to improving performance by developing and implementing these new ideas.

Government now needs new processes to obtain innovative ideas from employees, and it must seek new funding mechanisms to support idea generation.

The government needs to start thinking differently for two reasons:

  • Budgets are shrinking. Many agencies are faced with declining resources due to congressional pressure to reduce their budgets in the years ahead.
  • Demand for more cost-effective service delivery is expanding. Agencies now need to find new processes to better serve citizens, including new cost-effective ways to deliver those services.

1. What’s the issue?

Employees drive innovation, and successful companies realize that engaging employees fosters innovation.

The American public generally views the federal government as behind the private sector in developing new products and solutions to deliver government programs. As such, government is in danger of:

  • Moving too slowly to build new tools to more effectively provide services
  • Being unable to compete for the best and brightest talent

2. Why now?

The federal government continues to face severe budget constraints, with limited funds for research, development and innovation. Simultaneously, the private sector is undergoing a renaissance in innovation, such as the increasingly networked development of new applications for mobile devices that appear daily.

Everyday citizens experience the benefits of innovation in the private sector, changing the way they interact with key organizations, such as banks, airlines and retail stores. Yet citizens are experiencing very little innovation-driven change when they interact with government.

For the government to compete, it must adapt and develop new ways to encourage and implement ideas and products within its organizations. Its statutory authority will always keep government in business, but its inability to keep pace could significantly decrease government’s responsiveness and relevance.

3. How does this affect you?

Innovation in the delivery of government services will drive increased efficiency and effectiveness.

Government managers are now under increased pressure to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their programs. Managers must do this in an environment of shrinking or stagnant resources.

Government executives must understand how to cultivate, foster and execute innovation.

4. What’s the fix?

There are three key steps government organizations can take to implement an innovation program:

Step 1: Collect and vet ideas

There are now a variety of mechanisms, including idea platforms and challenges, that organizations can use to collect and evaluate ideas. In many organizations, employees vote on the merits of each innovation submission.

The following idea platforms have been effective mechanisms for collecting ideas:

  • IdeaHub at the Department of Transportation
  • The Sounding Board at the Department of State
  • IdeaFactory at the Department of Homeland Security

Additionally, many agencies are effectively using the platform to seek new ideas and to solve designated problems.

Step 2: Put in place a management plan to turn the ideas into a specific improvement

After the selection of a “good idea,” many organizations then need to develop a business plan that sets forth both the benefits of the innovation and how the organization can realize the innovation.

Often, such a plan will include the work steps, resources and a time schedule to innovate.

Step 3: Fund the innovation

Organizations are often able to complete the first two steps, but then encounter funding problems in step three. Few agencies have funds earmarked for innovation.

It is necessary – from the start – to have a separate fund available to provide the necessary resources to develop an innovation. Agencies are now successfully using the following funding sources for innovation:

  • Working capital fund
    Initial funding for the working capital fund can come from an assessment (usually 1%) of the agency’s total operating budget. Ideally, the return on investment (ROI) from the innovation replenishes the money from the working capital fund that originally funded the innovation.
  • Challenge grants
    Agencies now have authority for challenge grants via the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, which provides all agencies with expanded authority to pursue innovation.

5. What’s the bottom line?

Government is making progress in seeking pioneering ideas to improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness.

There are more tools now available to collect and vet ideas. The major challenge that remains is the implementation of those ideas.

The most often cited impediment to innovation is lack of available funding. A well-managed innovation fund will dramatically speed up an agency’s ability to innovate quickly and improve services.

Agencies that can link the collection of innovative ideas with secure funding to develop the idea stand the best chance of reaping the benefits of innovation to provide more efficient and effective services to the public.