01/24/2012 12:15 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

Don't Let a Good Idea Go to Waste

NASA employee Matthew Ritsko was honored at the White House this week with the president's SAVE Award for his plan to avoid duplicative purchases of highly specialized tools required for space flight.

The best part of this story is that NASA's leaders didn't wait for the president's blessing to implement what was obviously a good idea.

For as much as I love the SAVE Awards and other similar programs, I always wonder what happens to the ideas that don't make their way to the Oval Office. In addition to Ritsko's cost-saving initiative, about 15,000 other federal employees had money-saving, efficiency-producing ideas they felt strongly enough to submit to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Do good ideas simply vanish? Do they resurface within an agency and save money without the headlines? No one really knows.

The SAVE Awards suggest that federal employees are rising to the budgetary challenges and calls for innovation by finding new and more effective ways to deliver services and carry out their missions. Now it is up to federal leaders to cultivate an environment where employees will know that their ideas are welcomed, and that they will they receive support and recognition for their hard work.

During the past two years, my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, has worked with more than 1,000 federal employees from 40 different agencies on innovation in government. Based on our shared experience, here are a few of our ideas to help leaders and employees find better, smarter and more cost-effective ways of completing their work.

Define goals. Innovation is a buzzword that might conjure up lofty images of tough-to-achieve breakthroughs, so it's important for federal leaders to reframe what it means within the context of their agencies. A new product or service could be an innovation. So could taking a proven practice from one discipline and applying it to another. Just as importantly, innovation can be about incremental improvements. At its core, innovation is about solving problems. It is about identifying a need and letting that need drive change. Making this point clear to your employees is an essential first step.

Encourage employees to develop new approaches. Challenge your team by asking: Where are we falling short? Why are we failing to meet the needs of those we serve? How can we become more efficient, eliminate wasteful spending or do better? Once you understand the problems and get a sense of what you would like to do on a project or activity, it is critical to pull back the layers and assess how your agency and team can accomplish the goals. Not all ideas will be feasible, but you can narrow down solutions and move ahead incrementally at first, and then with more gusto if the changes are bringing success.

Provide resources and incentives. Create a process for your team to act on their ideas. Don't assume that your employees know what to do with their good ideas. Provide a roadmap that helps them navigate your agency's unique systems and politics in order to turn their concepts into reality. When a good idea pops up and is doable, provide tools and resources that help employees succeed. Some agencies have created innovation offices as a conduit for new ideas.

Recognize success. Create a system to recognize and encourage new behaviors. Even if you provide resources, employees still may not believe that the agency truly values innovation. Senior leaders need to recognize employees who go against the status quo and introduce new ideas, whether or not they ultimately succeed.

It's on that last point that I want to ask for your help around launching a new feature in this column -- the FedCoach Kudos.

Beginning today, please contact me with a best practice, innovation or even a promising practice leading to improved government results. You might be engaged in an effort to improve and streamline an inefficient government process. You might be adopting something working in one sector and applying it to our federal government. Maybe you're using existing resources creatively to launch a new effort that better meets the country's needs.

Based on your submissions, I will sort through the ideas and share those that demonstrate opportunities to deliver better results. We'll run the feature as often as we have great examples to share. You can send an email to me at

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