06 January 2016

The latest results from the 2015 Civil Service People Survey show that scores relating to innovation are strong and improving. The UK is also ahead of the USA on fostering a culture of innovation in central government. Dr. Jo Casebourne and Ollie Hirst look at the numbers.

Whitehall has long recognised the need for innovation in government and has tried a number of ways to drive innovation from the centre – as we’ve shown in our report Centre Forward. But it’s hard to measure the extent of innovation in government. One evidenced way of doing it is to focus on whether civil servants are motivated to innovate via the right conditions, cultures and incentives. That’s where the Civil Service People Survey comes in, with its four questions that research shows most closely reflect whether a culture of innovation is being fostered in government:

  1. My manager is open to my ideas.
  2. The people in my team work together to improve the service we provide.
  3. The people in my team are encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things.
  4. I believe I would be supported if I tried a new idea, even if it may not work.

The latest results from these four questions show that innovation in Whitehall is strong and improving.

Innovation across Whitehall is strong and improving

Innovation questions

Of the three measures included in the survey since 2009, the benchmark score for the first two questions has been high and relatively stable, whilst the score for staff feeling their team are encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things has increased. The new question added in 2012 designed to get at whether civil servants are encouraged to take risks by trying ideas that may not work, also saw an increase in its benchmark score of five percentage points. It’s a picture with room for improvement but the trend lines are clearly going in the right direction.

In the US, analysis of the 2015 Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey data shows that the UK has maintained its previous position of beating the US at innovation in government.

The US government is not rewarding creativity and innovation as well as the UK

US OPM survey

The innovation situation in the US has actually got worse since 2010 (although results on all three of these questions improved between 2014 and 2015). Although 91% of Federal employees agree that ‘I am constantly looking for ways to do my job better’, only just over half (57%) actually ‘feel encouraged to come up with new and better way of doing things’, much less than the 74% in Whitehall who report this, and only 37% of US Federal employees feel that ‘Creativity and innovation are rewarded’.

Whilst the UK may be ahead of the USA in fostering a culture of innovation in central government overall, there are, however, big differences between Whitehall departments.

Civil servants in the Treasury are most likely to think their manager is open to their ideas

Innovation by department

The Treasury tops the chart for managers’ openness to new ideas with DWP, MoD and HMRC doing less well. It’s notable that the policy departments tend to score more highly than those with a large operational delivery function. However, DWP and HMRC have seen improvement since 2009. There are also differences when it comes to working together to improve services.

Around 80% of civil servants believe that the people in their team work together to find ways to improve services

Working together by department

There is less variation here, but again the Treasury comes out on top, while the MoD has the lowest score and DWP, HMRC and the MoD have improved on their position in 2009.

When it comes to people being encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things, we’ve seen some big changes over time.

Most departments feel more encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things in 2015 than in 2010

Innovation by department over time

While most departments feel more encouraged to come up with new and better ways of doing things in 2015 than in 2010, there have been big dips for some departments along the way, noticeably in 2012 – the year of the London Olympics – when DCMS and MoD’s scores dropped sharply. But the biggest difference between departments is in their attitude to risk.

Civil servants in the Treasury and Cabinet Office are most likely to believe that they would be supported if they tried a new idea, even if it may not work

New idea by department over time

This results from this question, which has only been asked since 2012, show that the Treasury and Cabinet Office are ahead of the pack, followed by a cluster of other Whitehall departments. HMRC is the outlier, with only three in five employees thinking that they’ll be supported to try a new idea even if it may not work.

For departments wanting to increase their scores, there are some clear and evidenced approaches to harnessing individual motivation to innovate:

  • empowering employees
  • using incentives and performance appraisals
  • celebrating innovation through awards
  • harnessing what’s called ‘prosocial motivation’ (the desire to benefit others): for instance by showing civil servants in policy roles and ‘back offices’ the impact of their jobs, by enabling them to meet the ultimate beneficiaries of their work.

These actions could improve both performance and innovation in government.

Further information

The UK 2015 Civil Service People survey was completed by 279,653 people in 96 organisations. The US 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint survey was completed by 421,748 employees in 82 agencies.

Abbreviations for government departments can be found here.

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