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Engaged Employees Drive Innovation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bob Lavigna
July 17, 2019

I recently attended an Innovation Unplugged workshop at the annual Engaging Local Government Leaders conference. The workshop was packed with local government folks sharing their experiences innovating in government. The room was bursting with ideas and energy.

Unfortunately, when most people think about government, innovation is not what comes to mind. Instead, it’s rules and regulations, stodginess and bureaucracy. Summed up as the deathly, “We’ve always done it this way.”

The irony is that there is a great deal of innovation in government, and not just at the ELGL workshop. For example, each year the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service recognizes exceptional federal public servants—and their innovations—at the black-tie Service to America Medals event.

The list of Nobel Prize winners is also replete with federal government career employees. These federal Nobel laureates have eradicated polio, mapped the human genome, harnessed nuclear energy and developed medical advances that prolong and improve the quality of our lives.

In state and local government, the Ash Center (Harvard Kennedy School) has recognized hundreds of innovations through the annual Innovations in American Government Awards.

Despite these notable programs, the innovation landscape in government overall is not encouraging.

This was borne out in my organization’s latest national employee engagement survey. In this annual poll, we survey a random sample of employees across the nation to assess the level of engagement in all three levels of government, the private sector and K-12 education.

Several of the questions in our engagement survey link to innovation. The public-sector results in these areas are troubling, particularly when compared to the private sector.

For example, only 39 percent of government employees (federal, state and local combined) responded positively to the question, “I would describe my organization as innovative.” In sharp contrast, 59 percent of private-sector employees characterized their organizations as innovative. There was very little variation by level of government—innovation scored low across the board.

Our poll results are consistent with the latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results which show that only 43 percent of federal employees agreed that, “Creativity and innovation are rewarded.” And this is an increase over previous years’ results.

Digging a little deeper, here are the results from four questions in our survey that link to innovation:

Percent positive responses

*Federal, state and local government employees combined

These results show that too many public-sector employees do not believe they can try new ideas or innovate.  

I think this is due, in large part, to the visibility and transparency of government. Unlike the private sector, where corporate failures often do not see the light of day, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to avoid public scrutiny of government failures. The media and politicians eagerly characterize failures as needless wastes of taxpayers’ money. This type of notoriety is not only embarrassing, but can be career-ending.

No wonder government leaders are often risk averse.

In many private-sector companies, the mantra is, “Fail fast, fail often.” In other words, take risks, learn quickly from failures, fix what didn’t work and then move on to get it right.

This contrasts with many government agencies, where the attitude is, “Make no waves,” or, as a local government leader once told me, his job is to, “Keep a low profile.” Not enough government leaders are encouraging innovation or creating safe spaces for public servants to take risks. Instead of, “Make no waves,” public servants need to make more and bigger waves.

As decades of research have shown, an important way to stimulate innovation is to focus on improving employee engagement.   

Higher levels of employee engagement are linked to higher levels of innovation. According to Gallup, for example, 59 percent of engaged employees say their jobs bring out their creativity, compared to only three percent of disengaged employees.

Engaged employees find opportunities to innovate. They come up with ideas and then follow them through. According to one researcher who has studied the link between engagement and innovation, “You cannot foster true innovation without engaged employees.”

As I argue in my book, Engaging Government Employees, as well as in my other writing and speaking, measuring and improving engagement isn’t just another touchy-feely program. It’s much more than that.

It’s about enabling public servants to come up with innovative solutions to the tough problems government is asked to solve:  maintaining a strong economy; protecting the public, including our children; sustaining a war that has stubbornly persisted for more than 15 years; preserving the quality of life in our communities; eliminating poverty and homelessness; protecting the environment; expanding opportunity by improving our educational systems; providing affordable health care; and so on.

To creatively and effectively meet these challenges, government needs engaged and committed employees.

Author: Bob Lavigna is director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, a unit of CPS HR consulting, an independent government agency. The institute was created to help government organizations measure and improve engagement. His previous positions include assistant vice chancellor and director of human resources for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, vice president of research at the Partnership for Public Service and administrator of the state of Wisconsin civil service system. He can be reached at [email protected]

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One Response to Engaged Employees Drive Innovation

  1. Michelle Crandall Reply

    August 5, 2019 at 4:08 pm

    Did you breakout the levels of government? I would think that engagement and innovation would be significantly higher at the local government level than at state and federal levels.

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