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'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."