The Department of Labor's Strange Stretch of Innovation

For a short time, it accounted for about 30 percent of federal Innovations winners. John D. Donahue explores this burst of inventiveness.
by | September 5, 2007

The Innovations in American Government awards program, funded by the Ford Foundation and run by Harvard's Kennedy School, opened eligibility to federal agencies in 1994. During the first Clinton term, the U.S. Department of Labor--long considered a sleepy backwater--won three awards. Labor accounted for about one percent of federal personnel, about two percent of federal spending, and thirty percent of federal Innovations winners.

Then it stopped. After Clinton I, Labor never won another Innovations award.

What was going on?

Recently, for a book marking the 20th anniversary of the Innovations program, I was asked to write a chapter exploring this burst of inventiveness [1]. This was a somewhat dicey assignment. Since I worked at Labor for most of the first Clinton term, I'm no neutral observer. But here are some factors that seem significant.

People: First-term Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich was obsessed with personnel. With only 100-some political appointee slots in an 18,000-person department, he was determined to fill them with the best of the best. It helped that his closest buddy ran a premier executive search firm and volunteered to lend a hand. It helped that Reich was a friend of Clinton's from their days as Rhodes Scholars, and could use the connection to fend off pressures to hire the best connected rather than the best qualified. Reich, Deputy Tom Glynn, and Chief-of-Staff Kitty Higgins devoted long hours to interviews, turned down White House favorites, and sometimes cold-called top prospects who had expressed no interest in a job.

The people who ended up with responsibility for workforce development, pension protection, occupational safety and health, and the whole spectrum of Labor's tasks were smart and experienced but, just as important, passionately committed to their mission. This intrinsic commitment promoted innovation, since Reich trusted them to head toward the right goal and could leave them free to dream up new ways to get there. Most top Labor appointees, moreover, came from and expected to return to careers in the private sector or state and local government. This made them less reluctant than Washington lifers to shake things up, and more eager to score some wins dramatic enough to be comprehensible beyond the Beltway.

Systems: Glynn drew on his stellar management instincts to build systems that focused accountability on results rather than process. Most of the senior staff gathered for quick, informal meetings at the start and the end of the workday. The check-in meetings cost huge amounts of time, but they paid off. They let assistant secretaries solicit ideas, coordinate plans, and get quick approval for experiments or shifts in strategy. And they let Reich, Glynn, and Higgins stay comfortably current on even the most fast-changing policy initiative, while keeping up the pressure for progress. Glynn also insisted that each initiative have a designated "driver"--who may or may not be the senior official with formal authority in the policy domain--who was empowered to set strategy and accountable for results. Finally, the management systems at Labor broke down walls, often figuratively (setting up cross-agency teams, moving senior appointees from job to job), and sometimes literally (Reich had a warren of separate offices adjacent to his cleared out and replaced with open, flexible work space for task forces.)

Culture: The workplace culture at the Labor Department celebrated creativity, denigrated stasis, and tolerated risk. Reich endlessly solicited ideas--from senior appointees, from academics and Labor alumni invited in for brainstorming sessions, and from career civil servants in freewheeling "town hall" meetings. The results were often mundane, sometimes unworkable, occasionally bizarre, but there was enough gold in the ore to justify the mining. Moreover, the effort itself underscored the importance the front office placed on innovation.

Reich and Glynn formed a "good cop, bad cop" act for shaping departmental culture. Reich was the charismatic coach, motivating the team with visions of more skills, better jobs, safer and fairer workplaces. Glynn was a demanding boss by nature, and the pressure he felt to keep the department on track made him even tougher. But while he came down hard on staffers who let initiatives drift or who built their empires instead of advancing departmental goals, he could be philosophical about the honest errors that accompany experimentation.

It's also clear that Reich's personal background and character are part of the story. He's passionate, impatient, thick-skinned and soft-hearted, open to risk, and as smart as they come. Even if the aspects of personnel, systems and culture that I've highlighted do account for Labor's brief flowering of innovation--and at this point they're anecdotes, not analysis--the model may be hard to replicate if it hinges on an unusual personality at the top. On the other hand, there may be broad-spectrum and thoroughly encouraging lessons to be drawn from the fact that a leader with big goals and a willingness to roll the dice, backed by a handful of trusted teammates, was able to unleash a blizzard of change in so unlikely a setting.

[1] The book, with a title still in the works, is edited by Sandford Borins and will be published by Brookings in early 2008.

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