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Delegating Up: Crowd-Sourcing Innovation in the Federal Government

Delegating Up: Crowd-Sourcing Innovation in the Federal Government

Jitinder Kohli and John Griffith explore new initiatives to harness the creative power of the federal workforce and those outside government to improve operations and services.

The Department of Transportation launched its new
The Department of Transportation launched its new "IdeaHub" tool in August. This new online community building effort seeks to tap into the expertise and ingenuity of its more than 55,000 employees, who can post ideas on how to improve the operation of the department and its programs. (Department of Transportation)

Two weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article in its “Executive Advisor” series that exposed a little-known secret about innovation in the private sector—it tends to come from everyday people. Most profitable ideas do not come from research labs or a board rooms but rather from the minds of employees on the front lines.

Too often this bottom-up approach to innovation is ignored in the public sector, where new ways of working are only implemented when passed down from top positions instead of delegated up from employees. Junior staffers become disempowered. The result: They see their role as complying with the rules set by others.

The Center for American Progress recently published a report, “Capital Ideas: How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector,” that lays out steps that leaders in federal agencies should take to promote a constant flow of promising ideas. Two of the strategies that our report called on agencies to adopt were unleashing the creative talents of agency staff and collaborating with outsiders to help generate creative solutions.

Three agencies have done just that. The Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development all now boast initiatives to identify and leverage innovative ideas through the power of crowd-sourcing technology.

Most recently, DOT launched its new “IdeaHub” tool in early August. This new online community building effort seeks to tap into the expertise and ingenuity of its more than 55,000 employees, who can post ideas on how to improve the operation of the department and its programs. Once an idea is posted, other employees can rate it on a scale of one to five and comment. Based on this activity, the IdeaHub liaisons, a small team that works for DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, work with the agency leadership and department staff to determine whether the ideas can be implemented.

The tool is similar in design to the Transportation Security Administration’s IdeaFactory tool, which has been operating since late 2007 and has received more than 11,000 ideas. We featured this pioneering new tool in our Capital Ideas report because it has already begun to have an impact. One idea that has been implemented is self-select lanes at airports that enable travelers to select one of three lanes depending on their needs and knowledge of the screening process.

IdeaHub builds on this experience as it operates not just at the level of an agency within a department but across the department as a whole. In its inaugural month, DOT’s IdeaHub generated over 800 new ideas. DOT staff plan to start acting on the recommendations rapidly, including several ideas that can be implemented in the coming months.

Like any workforce, employees in federal agencies have unmatched knowledge of the day-to-day workings of the organization, which is why it is important to stimulate discussion about how those operations can run more smoothly and effectively. But there is also value in seeking the input of outside stakeholders while developing new ideas. Outside partners who work to implement federal programs and beneficiaries of federal assistance offer unique perspectives on federal programs. This is the primary focus of HUD’s “Ideas in Action” tool, which seeks the views of this wider community.

Ideas in Action also utilizes crowd-sourcing technology to create a forum in which users can generate new ideas, comment on the ideas of other users, and vote on their favorites. What sets HUD’s Ideas in Action apart from other tools is its breadth, seeking input from all stakeholders in HUD programs—residents in public housing, partners who work with HUD to provide affordable housing and engage local communities, agency employees, and the general public—to directly transform the way HUD does business and to inform the implementation of its strategic goals.

The tool also allows for transparent dialogue on the agency’s mission, programs and operations. It is not just a place where partners are empowered to influence how HUD operates, but also a place for discussion on HUD programs and initiatives.

Of the more than 2,000 ideas generated since the launch of Ideas in Action in November last year, about 5 percent of the ideas have entered the pipeline for review. These are the ones that received the most votes and which have been identified as “most actionable” by HUD staff. Several ideas have already been translated into new HUD policies, including environment-friendly printing rules in all headquarters offices and streamlined human resources procedures for processing transfers and other employee requests.

One issue faced by idea-generation sites such as these is that submissions tend to lack the specificity necessary to be implemented. Users are able to identify an area that does not work as well as it could and sometimes make a suggestion to improve it, but there may be reasons why that particular approach would not work. But that does not mean that the process is not of value. Often, there is another way of tackling the area of concern and the process brings out the importance of doing so. The very fact that agency processes and systems receive scrutiny shows that agencies feel accountable about the way they do things. And simply providing the opportunity for staff to submit their ideas empowers agency staff to make the government more effective.

Together, these changes mark an emerging culture of empowerment and innovation in the federal government, with federal workers and outside partners working together to identify better ways for agencies to operate. IdeaHub, IdeaFactory, and HUD’s Ideas in Action are impressive steps toward fostering public-sector innovation from the ground up.

We at the Center’s Doing What Works project are eager to see ideas from these tools crystallize into more substantive reforms in the coming months. In the meantime, agencies across government should follow the examples of these pioneering agencies. The federal workforce and other key stakeholders have been closed out of the process of developing new ways of working for too long, depriving the government of a bounty of creative approaches to the problems it faces. It is time for the government to take a page out of the private sector’s playbook and begin to seek guidance from those who often know best.

Jitinder Kohli is a Senior Fellow at American Progress. His work focuses on government efficiency, regulatory reform, and economic issues. John Griffith is a research associate with the Doing What Works project at the Center. Go to the Doing What Works webpage at the Center’s website to learn more about the project.

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Jitinder Kohli

Senior Fellow

John Griffith

Policy Analyst