The federal government has an innovation problem — or does it?
The answer depends on whom you ask.
Federal employees surveyed over the past three years have had a declining view of government innovation. But that doesn't mean Uncle Sam doesn't have pockets of creativity, as highlighted by Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
The bad news first: Less than 40 percent of federal employees felt that creativity and innovation were rewarded in their agency — a 2.5 percentage point drop from 2011.
And while 91 percent of federal employees said they were consistently looking for ways to improve in their jobs, just slightly more than 57 percent felt encouraged to do so.
The assessments are part of an analysis by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which produces the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings. Those rankings are based on an annual survey of the workforce by the federal government.
Between 2011 and 2012, federal employees' scores for overall innovation in government dropped 1.7 points to 61.5 out of a possible 100, the partnership said.
"It's not an immense drop, but year to year it's a troubling one, especially in an environment where we need an innovative government," said Max Stier, the group's president and chief executive.
"If we don't do things in smarter ways, the government will not be able to perform with the resources it has."
All but two of the 18 large agencies ranked in the report received a lower score for overall innovation in 2012 than in 2011.
NASA received the highest innovation score, while the Department of Homeland Security came in last.
NASA's space flight centers helped give the agency a boost, with the John C. Stennis Space Center, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt taking first, second and third place, respectively, in agency subcomponent rankings.
At the Department of Homeland Security, among its 292 subcomponent rankings, the Secret Service landed at 265, Immigration and Customs Enforcement at 288 and the Transportation Security Administration at 292.
Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation offered a different vantage point. It gave some federal agencies a boost in its Top 25 Innovations in Government list.
The list covers innovations in federal, state, local and tribal governments. In the fall, a winner and four finalists will be selected for the Innovations in American Government Award established by the Ford Foundation in 1985.
Nine of the 25 nominees involve federal agencies.
NASA made that list, too, for its collaboration with the State Department, USAID and the sportswear company Nike on an initiative called Launch, which seeks to foster innovative ideas.
"NASA works on some of the most scientifically challenging questions around," said Jeri Buchholz, assistant administrator for NASA's Office of Human Capital Management. "To do that, you need to have a culture that encourages new ways to solve problems and empowers people to do that."
Buchholz said a big part of fostering innovation is identifying administrative barriers that could slow down employees. She said the agency regularly reviews its internal controls to make sure they're still relevant.
"It's an ongoing effort, not a single program or process or procedure," she said. "It really needs to be a part of everyone's day-to-day work life."
Although the Department of Transportation ranked 16th out of 18 large agencies on the Partnership's list, its IdeaHub has helped the agency move in a positive direction. Ash recognized the internal, online community designed for department employees to share and develop new ideas.
The Transportation Department also showed the most improvement among large agencies on the Partnership ranking, rising by 1.7 percentage points from 2011 to 2012.
Department spokesman Justin Nisly said the agency had implemented more than 100 employee-generated ideas since launching IdeaHub three years ago.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which ranked 16th of 20 midsize agencies in the Partnership report, made it onto the Ash list twice — once for its neighborhood revitalization program, and again for its program focused on sustainable communities, which it conducts in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department.
For Stephen Goldsmith, Ash's director of the Innovations in Government Program, said creativity can emerge if employees are given permission to experiment.
"In a risk-averse context, the courage and ability to think across those boundaries is restricted. And I'm afraid that's what's occurring today in the federal workforce," he said. "It's not even just the political environment in Washington, it's the structures of government themselves that are quite inconsistent with the bold innovative thinking that is necessary to move us to a better place."
The Partnership's Stier echoes Goldsmith's assessment.
"We have a government that is way too risk-averse," he said. "By attempting to avoid mistakes, we fail to take advantage of positive opportunities."
Government must offer more formal awards and incentives to employees for their creativity, the partnership recommends, as well as create a collaborative culture.
It comes down to a relatively basic principle, as Goldsmith sees it: "Places where employees enjoy working are more conducive to innovation."