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Connecting the Talent Dots

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A manager might need temporary talent on a project and doesn’t have it on his/her team. Energetic employees in other parts of the agency may have those skills and would like to share them as a way of broadening their professional experience. How can they connect?

GovConnect is an initiative sponsored by the Office of Personnel Management that reflects broader trends in the workplace toward project-based work. It allows federal employees to share knowledge, collaborate and apply their skills to address challenges that may be beyond their traditional job classification or organizational or geographic location. Announced a year ago, it is being piloted within several agencies and is poised to be spread across government in coming months.

When the Obama administration began developing its second-term management agenda in mid-2013, it reached out to agencies, asking for ideas. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Personnel Management suggested creating the equivalent of TaskRabbit for sharing skills across their agencies or departments. At the time, EPA had a pilot underway called Skills Marketplace, and when they suggested this, several other agencies jumped in saying they, too, were piloting or considering similar approaches. OPM offered to take the lead jointly with EPA. It announced a governmentwide initiative in March 2014, inviting agencies to propose pilots to test the concept.

In a memo to agencies in April 2014, OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said: “The goal of GovConnect is to create a culture of excellence based on collaboration and teamwork that responds to mission demands without being unnecessarily limited by organizational silos.”

In doing this, it suggested pilots might adopt one of three workforce agility models:

  • Model 1: GovProject. This model would be constituted of manager-initiated micro-projects in which employees apply to participate part time (e.g., up to 20 percent of their time) on projects posted by managers in their agency or in another agency.
  • Model 2: GovStart. This model would involve employee-initiated micro-projects and self-organized professional networks in which employees identify a need, identify the collaborations needed, and assemble part-time teams. This grassroots approach contrasts with the management-driven approach.
  • Model 3: GovCloud. This model would pilot an approach in which employees are hired into an agency (or governmentwide), but not into a specific job. They would be tasked out to agencies on one or more specific projects on an as-needed basis. The cross-agency US Digital Service is an example of this model.

In its announcement, OPM offered to “provide both an overarching program and technological capability that encourages and enables, for example, rapid assembly of skills-based teams and deployment of talent within and across agencies.”

It said successful pilots would need to have senior-level champions with sustained support, who would play key roles in “securing buy-in from key stakeholders such as unions and front-line supervisors at agency headquarters and regional offices.”

Launch of the Pilots

OPM invited agencies to participate in March 2014. It asked that they designate executive champions and create pilot project design teams with the objective of testing various hypotheses, such as whether employees would be willing to participate in activities outside their current jobs that they would be passionate about or whether they would want to develop other professional experiences, as well as to test whether managers would be willing to support their staff’s participation in such activities.

OPM created a GovConnect Design Team to help agencies and is co-leading this effort with EPA, which had been an early pioneer of the concept. The proposal sparked imaginations across government, and a number of agencies and regional Federal Executive Boards stepped up with ongoing or proposed initiatives, including:

  • EPA’s Skills Marketplace
  • The Housing and Urban Development Department’s Rotational Assignment Program and Innovation Time pilot
  • The Social Security Administration’s Skills Connect

Many other agencies are undertaking similar experiments. The departments of Commerce, Transportation, State, Labor and Energy are developing new models or exploring options for their own pilots. The Los Angeles and San Francisco Federal Executive Boards have also offered to participate. The General Services Administration has developed an interagency program, Open Opportunities, and launched a new software platform with 18F. So far, eight agencies have posted tasks on the platform.

In the end, OPM hopes to identify models suitable for governmentwide adoption.

What Agencies Are Doing

GovConnect is in the design and pilot phase. Melissa Kline-Lee, GovConnect’s program manager at OPM, says: “Several agencies are in the process of designing and launching single-agency pilots in fiscal year 2015 to test one of three GovConnect workforce agility models.” Following are some examples:

Environmental Protection Agency. EPA launched its Skills Marketplace initiative several years ago, before GovConnect began, to better engage employees. It wanted to respond to employee survey comments such as “it’s so hard to get experience in other parts of EPA.” The project’s executive sponsors were inspired by the commercial company 3M’s initiative to allow staff to work a certain percentage of their time on their own projects.

The executive sponsors of EPA’s initiative knew the 3M approach might be too difficult to implement in a public sector environment, but they did think that allowing employees to work up to 20 percent of their time on a mini-project elsewhere in the organization might be more acceptable. They started working on this in 2011 and found they had to address a variety of hurdles, including personnel regulations, union acceptance, legal issues and acceptance by managers (who feared they might be penalized for allowing their staff to work elsewhere).

According to EPA Deputy Chief of Staff John Reeder, the agency launched a set of pilots from May to December 2013 in selected EPA offices and found the projects and employee responses to be worthwhile, so they expanded the program agencywide in August 2014. To start the process, they created a project portal where managers could post potential mini-projects. The managers had to be able to describe the project, the skills needed, how much time would be expected, and how long the project would last. The work had to be able to be done virtually, with no travel costs.

The managers of the Skills Marketplace waited until they had enough projects in hand before launching the portal—they didn’t want to stand up an empty portal. Individuals who are interested in participating can sign up for an automatic notification whenever a new project is posted on the portal.

According to program manager Noha Gaber, more than 300 projects have been posted to date, with 450 applicants. Projects have ranged from those requiring technical skills to communications/social media skills to economic, policy and grant skills. One person working on pesticides policy, for example, had GIS skills and applied for a project in the IT office to map key facilities around the nation that were listed in the toxic release inventory. The project is up for an EPA-wide award. In addition, the staffer not only gained experience in another office, but also brought new skills and experience back to his home office.

EPA is helping other agencies leverage their pioneering experiences in dealing with the change management issues involved, from setting program policies to working with unions to developing the platform to facilitate posting and finding project opportunities.

Housing and Urban Development Department. HUD agreed to pilot each of the three models and share their lessons with others. For example:

The Rotational Assignment program, which started as a pilot in 2012, reflects the GovProject model. Its use was inspired by the Presidential Management Fellows program’s rotational assignments of 60 to 90 days to another office. It was seen as helping individuals increase their professional network, develop varied experiences and clarify their career paths. Then-Secretary Shaun Donovan asked HUD’s Learning Office to pilot 50 such assignments to start off, and the program was seen as successful by the participants.  HUD is now experimenting with part-time rotational assignments, like the EPA model.

The Innovation Time program, which reflects the GovStart model, was inspired by the corporate sector’s employee innovation time programs, such as 3M’s, in which employees are allowed to use up to 10 percent of their work time to develop innovations that might be outside their current work responsibilities. HUD piloted this approach in two of its divisions on a voluntary basis. Over 70 participants worked on 26 projects over a four-month pilot period. This program allowed participants to look beyond their “day job” to the broader organization and offer ways to improve operations. The Resource Locator project, for example, was developed by a team of HUD employees via Innovation Time and is being expanded to the entire agency. The Resource Locater is an app that helps people find affordable housing in several metropolitan areas, including Portland, Oregon, and Minneapolis.

The GovCloud model was a pilot that was not successful, at least initially. The idea was to create a squad of “consultants on demand” to work on different projects across the agency. After six months, the project was terminated, but there were lessons learned. Creating a team of generalist consultants was not successful, but a team with specialized skills—such as members of the US Digital Service or GSA’s 18F—might be.

Social Security Administration. SSA launched its Skills Connect pilot in January, to run for a six-month period. According to Reginald Wells, SSA’s deputy commissioner for human resources, the pilot offers employees access to a new venue for developmental opportunities, where they can volunteer for mini-projects up to 20 percent of their time with their supervisor’s approval. Projects can last up to six months.

The pilot is open to one-third of the agency’s staff (about 21,000 people) working at headquarters in Baltimore as well as two regional offices in Atlanta and Boston. To date, there have been 103 projects posted on the pilot’s web portal. Wells says there has been widespread interest, with about 12,000 visits to the portal. There have been 517 applicants, with 80 matches. Projects have ranged from technical web design to legal assistance.

Wells sees the pilot as “overwhelmingly successful” and says  it takes advantage of the staff’s diversity of thought, talent and experience, noting they are no longer bound by their geographic or organizational boundaries. He sees government moving in the direction of project-based work—much like in the private sector—that reaches across organizational and geographic lines. The pilot, he says, reinforces SSA’s recent Vision 2025 of how it will do its work in the future.

Next Steps

OPM’s Kline-Lee says: “Single agency pilots will continue through fiscal year 2015 as we aim to increase the adoption of evidence-based practices and design multiagency pilots for fiscal year 2016 replication. Our goal is to incorporate lessons learned from both single-agency and multiagency pilots into designing the final GovConnect program.”

(Image via Wisiel/Shutterstock.com)

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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