Federal Innovators Leap Tall Barriers

Susan Hall

A new report looks at people who have led innovation in government and the characteristics they have in common.


The report, "Leading Innovation in Government," is the work of the Partnership for Public Service and Hay Group. In previous work, the authors have pointed to real barriers to innovation for government leaders, including lack of a process to bring ideas to fruition, gaps in communications and ever-shifting priorities, lack of funds for experimenting, and a system that rewards the status quo.


Yet, some leaders are able to pull off big wins. The report cites a long list of accomplishments, including leaders who:


  • Improved the delivery of Social Security benefits to citizens living in impoverished and remote locations through an innovative two-way video service.
  • Developed and led an initiative that reduced life-threatening hospital-acquired infections by 60 percent, a system replicated at all VA hospitals and at hospitals around the world.
  • Led the design and construction of the world's largest net-zero energy office building, demonstrating that buildings can be created to reduce energy consumption at no additional cost.


Hay Group's Scott Spreier told Federal News Radio that these innovative leaders had basically three things in common:


  • a laser-like focus on the agency's mission
  • a unique ability to navigate through barriers
  • the ability to create a climate that engages their teams


And these people weren't necessarily managers, he said. But they are committed to mentoring and coaching, treating teaching as a core aspect of leadership. The report breaks out nine characteristics of these top leaders, then further divides each into four more. You'll want to check that out. Spreier recommends leaders look at the list and pick a couple on which they need more focus.


Acknowledging that the spectre of government shutdown creates even more uncertainty for government workers these days, he said leaders have to address that.


"You really have to focus on your mission and that can't just shift to survival," he said. The best leaders create clarity for their teams when there's little clarity and help people focus on the things they can control. That helps keep them focused on the work they need to be doing.


As the report says:

Federal innovation leaders stand out from their private-sector counterparts because of their ability to drive innovation despite complex processes, competing agendas, deep hierarchies and static cultures that can stifle even the most insignificant collaboration and risk-let alone real innovation.

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