Can a New Work Design Help the Government?

What you can learn from the agencies that pioneered different approaches.

In his recent article “Can Self-Managed Teams Work in Government?” John Kamensky of the IBM Center for the Business of Government addressed the tough challenge of improving employee engagement as measured by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Examining the potential of self-managed teams in motivating the workforce, Kamensky wrote:

“The concept has been around for decades, and there are success stories in the private sector. In fact, it has been tried in the federal government, starting with some of the Bill Clinton administration’s Reinvention Labs. More recently, the Office of Personnel Management piloted a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) in 2010 with 400 staffers, but it faltered and was curtailed a couple years later.”

As assistant director of the Veterans Affairs Department’s New York Regional Office during the Reinventing Government era, I oversaw the most highly publicized effort to establish self-managed teams. After this experience and having studied ROWE and similar work methods, I see both the plusses and minuses of taking a different approach in government. There are reasons why the concept has not caught on with federal leaders and why it could make a huge difference under the right circumstances.

The Plusses

Building self-managed teams—which I refer to as teams of leaders—is a completely different work design than the traditional pyramid, in which the supervisor sits on top, making all of the key decisions, and the employees primarily interact with the boss on a one-on-one basis. Under this approach, there is an enormous amount of pressure on the supervisor to produce results while having to deal with upper management, the employees, maybe the union, various stakeholders and customers.

It is probably the most thankless job in government, and as a result, many people have decided not to go into management because they believe all the headaches that go with it aren’t worth an extra pay grade or two.

This design isn’t very appealing from the employees’ perspective either, since they generally aren’t involved in setting goals, managing group performance or holding each other accountable. They quickly recognize that they are there to merely do a job for which they are replaceable. The employees often find that 1) they only get information after the fact, 2) their ideas aren’t valued, and 3) innovation and creativity is discouraged.

The team of leaders design flips this approach on its head by eventually eliminating the supervisor from the team, other than the occasional advisory role, and making each employee an equal member of the team who can step up and provide leadership.

Team members are trained to perform the key tasks within the group, so there is much more flexibility than under the traditional design. Moreover, as the team matures, everyone becomes involved in goal-setting, performance management, running team meetings, holding each other accountable, and working with upper management and other teams.

Such a design would greatly improve employee engagement because everyone is involved in running the team, has a much greater understanding of what is going on, has a stake in helping the team achieve its goals, and feels like part owner of the organization. Private sector companies that have used the concept have clearly demonstrated that performance naturally increases and organizations have more focus and energy because their employees are more engaged, knowledgeable and committed.

Meanwhile, supervisors are freed up to perform direct labor and/or higher-level work, such as benchmarking and strategic planning. Overall, the net effect of building teams of leaders can be tremendous, creating better performance, more capacity and a much better culture.

The Minuses

Of course, we all know nothing comes that easy, and building teams of leaders is no exception. You need to properly build them. They do not convert from units to teams by fiat.

To do this right, you need to integrate six key components:

  1. The five-stage team development model. This approach designs and tracks the development of teams from the beginning stage until they eventually become mature teams of leaders at Stage Five.
  2. Systems design. Management systems must be properly designed, aligned and implemented.
  3. Process design. The key processes (onboarding, off-boarding, performance management, etc.) must also be well-designed, aligned and implemented.
  4. The value creation model. This approach enables each member to understand how much value they and the team contribute to the organization.
  5. Knowledge management. Each team member must have the knowledge needed to become a team of leaders.
  6. Visual management. Your physical plant should be designed to reinforce the above components, celebrate the team’s uniqueness, and rally it around the mission and the metrics.

Note that transforming your organization into teams of leaders takes time, energy, more initial support than under a traditional setting, quite a bit of patience, perhaps some consulting support to get it off the ground, a recognition that this may have a short-term impact on performance, and most importantly, the support of senior leadership. After all, without political support, this approach is likely to fail.

Why It Has Not Caught On

VA’s New York Regional Office received an enormous amount of publicity for its transition to teams of leaders in the 1990s. It not only built teams, but also changed the workflow, the way it measured work, and even the manner in which it paid its employees. This approach built up a great deal of excitement among the employees and definitely improved the way people were involved and engaged.

As a result, the office received Vice President Al Gore’s first Hammer Award, made the cover of Government Executive magazine, was featured in a number of other publications and received many visitors. The organization also struggled to improve its performance under a heavy workload, among other challenges.

When the team approach was quickly expanded to all 57 regional offices, the Veterans Benefits Administration as a whole struggled at the beginning for a number of reasons. Part of the problem was the time, energy and resources involved in such a transformation effort, but other factors included:

  • Certain court decisions required VBA to rework hundreds of thousands of claims.
  • Significant problems with computer systems resulted in a major drop in its productivity.
  • The VA secretary deemed certain medical conditions for veterans to be caused by military service, creating an influx of new work.

Simply put, all of these forces hurt VBA’s ability to permanently implement the concept. Moreover, once a new administration arrived, it was naturally concerned about the backlogs at VBA and eventually returned claims processing to a more traditional work design.

OPM’s experiment with ROWE, which did not involve building teams of leaders but also tried to provide employees with more autonomy, yielded some positive results as well. ROWE is an approach to work in which employees are paid for results rather than the number of hours worked. During the pilot, OPM saw a significant spike in employee satisfaction during the early transition and a greater focus on results.

However, despite having support from senior leadership, the program was disbanded for a number of reasons: First-line managers did not receive enough training for leadership roles they did not really want, some supervisors misreported actual performance, the objectives were unclear, and the program lacked metrics to hold employees accountable.

Lessons Learned

These two examples were noble experiments to change the work design of government organizations. While they ultimately did not prevail, there is no reason federal leaders cannot learn from them and take a more modern approach to the way work is designed. Among the lessons:

  • Do not try and transform your organization while dealing with major workload challenges.
  • Better to try a new design during the early stages of an administration, when you will have time to let the concept naturally grow and to learn from your initial mistakes.
  • Converting to a team-based or ROWE approach is more likely to survive into a new administration, if the performance is very good.
  • You need to have the infrastructure (design, training, metrics, information systems, accountability, supervisory support, etc.) in place as you go forward.
  • Given the ongoing challenges that the federal government faces, it is extremely difficult to make a widespread nationwide change all at once. A more incremental approach will be less overwhelming and result in better performance in the offices that initially convert to teams of leaders, ROWE or another model.

A more modern work design in the federal government can make a significant difference in performance and employee engagement, if it is done correctly. However, any organization that chooses to do so should learn from the experiences of others who pioneered new approaches. One size will not fit all. Teams of leaders may be right for some government organizations that desire a team-based approach while ROWE may be the better option for organizations that prefer to be decentralized. That is a choice each agency should make.

Rather than trying to improve employee engagement by increasing your investment in supervisory training and implementing programs to boost morale, take a hard look at your work design and consider changing it.

Stewart Liff is president and CEO of Stewart Liff & Associates Inc., specializing in HRM, visual performance management and team development. He is author of seven books, including Managing Government Employees and A Team of Leaders. He can be reached at