How Government Techies Can Usher in the Next Generation of Federal Workers

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The federal government is applying its technology experts to fix what ails its workforce.

How can a team of engineers, designers and developers improve morale and build “the next generation federal workforce,” as the General Service’s Administration’s 18F team claimed it will do in a blog post this week?

To Brad Nunnally and Sarah Allen, who are heading up the project for the Office of Personnel Management, the solution is all about collaboration. Federal employees -- especially younger ones with fewer connections -- tend to get walled off in silos, which limits their ability to foster new skills, cultivate relationships and voice their ideas. By bringing its Silicon Valley philosophy to human capital management, 18F believes it can eliminate many of those obstacles.

18F is working with OPM on its GovConnect initiative, which attempts to sidestep organizational silos by connecting employees with specific skills to projects that match those abilities. Former OPM Director Katherine Archuleta launched the program in 2014, with pilot projects cropping up at several agencies across government.

As OPM was looking to expand those pilots and learn what was working well and what was not, it decided to hire 18F to help build a blueprint for a creating a successful skills match program.  

GSA runs a program called Open Opportunities, which helps federal employees connect with tasks outside their day-to-day jobs. The technology Allen helped build for that program, Midas, has played a key role in several GovConnect pilot projects. Allen said lending 18F’s experience to GovConnect allows her and her team to engage with agencies “that are doing the same kinds of things” they are working on.

“This is a chance for us to really dig in and do some amazing research,” Allen told Government Executive.

As it typically does, 18F has conducted that discovery research before preaching any best practices. Nunnally led that effort, meeting with project mentors, pilot agencies and programs not tied to GovConnect to glean whether a top-down or bottom-up approach to these initiatives is more successful, how to expand a pilot to a full-blown government program, how employees were able to work their side projects into their daily responsibilities and other lessons from the federal guinea pigs.

Nunnally, who spent more than 8 years in private sector technology consulting before recently joining 18F, said there was a bit of a learning curve when he first joined the relatively young GSA component.

“I thought I knew what a big organization was,” he said, “until I came to government.”

After conducting the reviews, Nunnally and 18F will put together a “starter kit” with “proven techniques” to help agencies start and scale GovConnect programs. Allen said the goal is to not just “write a report that no one’s going to read.” 18F held a multi-day workshop this week to bring pilot participants to validate that there is an interest and to allow pilot participants to bounce ideas off each other.

“We already have a group of people that are interested in reading it,” Allen said of the forthcoming starter kits. Nunnally added that by involving the participants in the workshops, they will see their ideas and voices in the final report, further increasing the odds that it will actually go to good use.

“We hear their stories and bring their stories together,” Nunnally said. “We just packaged it together.”

Ultimately, Allen said, the projects 18F is helping to launch and build can help plug the holes left open by a government model that “predates current technology and management practices.” The current civil service system lacks opportunities for professional development and leaves managers -- who are facing shrinking budgets -- without the people to do the work they need to get done, she said.

Allowing employees with the right skills for a specific project or task to fill a gap somewhere else in their agency or across government is likely to be more efficient than sending someone to training or a conference, Allen said.

“There’s a lot of problems that don’t require an interagency work group,” she explained.

The new programs will also benefit employees, who can forge new relationships and learn new skills. They will also provide more avenues for the rank-and-file to make their ideas heard.

In the government’s old way of thinking, an idea at the grassroots level “goes up the chain then it goes back down the chain, and often it gets stuck in that hierarchy,” Allen said.

She added that 18F was created by “hacking bureaucracy,” and this latest imitative is simply an example of how it is continuing that tradition. 

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