Creating a culture of innovation is essential to government success, according to both Federal and state government officials. During a recent GovLoop webinar, Carlos Rivero, chief data officer for the Commonwealth of Virginia, and Jason Barke, acting principal deputy associate director for employee services at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), explained that a culture of innovation has to begin with a leadership mindset change to both encourage innovation and reduce the fear of failure.

Importance of Innovation

When asked what innovation means in the government, Rivero explained that “innovation is what you do when you don’t have the resources to do what everyone else is doing.” Rivero explained that his experience in both state and Federal government taught him that frequently technology and science departments don’t always get the funding they need. “We really have to get good at doing a lot with nothing,” he said.

The funding constraint has taught Rivero, and his team, to get incredibly creative and often taking a “MacGyver approach” when it comes to solving problems. He explained that his team often has big problems to solve and not a lot of resources to solve them with. Rivero noted that frequently their best resources are human resources. The key to solving complex problems is bringing the human resources his team has together to brainstorm creative solutions that “get the job done.”

Barke agreed with Rivero and said his team is focused on being more creative and improving efficiency. Working across OPM to develop solutions is critical, he said. Barke explained that recently he’s run into issues where he doesn’t have the team members he needs for a solution, so he turned to the broader agency to source the talent and assistance needed.

Barke pushed the importance of thinking outside the box, explaining that frequently people get locked into a “we’ve always don’t it this way” mindset, and instead need to consider that there may be a better way to do something.

Overcoming Barriers to Innovation

While innovation might be critical to improving government agencies, that doesn’t always mean it will come easily to government employees.

Rivero said it is critical to create a culture of “psychological safety” on his team. He said leaders need to make sure team culture is inclusive, so everyone is able to and feels comfortable with sharing their opinions and concerns. Rivero said that culture is important so that if employees become overwhelmed they can communicate that and don’t feel the need to hold back on how they are doing. When employees can share their true feelings, Rivero said the team can come together and help “relieve that burden” for the overwhelmed team member.

The key to creating psychological safety and a willingness to innovate is normalizing failing so employees aren’t afraid to take risks. “Innovation is not something that happens in a vacuum,” Rivero said. “It happens when leadership really empowers individuals to think freely and act freely and be able to fail without any severe consequences.”

Rivero continued to explain that “as long as you fail with a reason to fail and recover quickly, then the failure is a success because you are able to build on it and move forward.”

Inability to fail is a big constraint on government agencies, Rivero said. “Oftentimes in government, we don’t give our employees the opportunities to fail, we don’t give them the flexibility to be able to take a risk and move forward,” he said.

The desire to avoid failure stems from a leadership issue. “What happens in government is that we are more focused on management rather than leadership,” he said. “In management, you are more focused on constraints … When you focus on constraints … you create a risk-averse structure.”

Barke agreed that creating a strong culture for innovation is essential, though his team has taken slightly different steps to develop that culture.

When it comes to increasing innovation and overcoming that “this is how we’ve always done this” mindset, Barke’s team makes sure to celebrate milestones and employee success. He said his team created an innovation award given out to teams and specific individuals.

To further foster an innovation-driven culture, Barke worked with his team to create a physical space to innovate freely. His team created an “innovation space” with whiteboards along the walls where people can go in and write stuff down.

He said this was key because employees could feel safe and write things down without having to say who wrote it, removing the fear of writing an idea that might not pan out successfully. Barke explained that others would come into the space, read what colleagues had written down, and build on their ideas. “Before you knew it, we had a whiteboard full of different ideas,” he said. As a result of the innovation space, management and leadership were able to walk by the innovation space to see the new ideas and run with them.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs