Imagine a workplace culture where employees are encouraged to break from their normal routines and explore innovative projects that excite them and potentially offer promising returns for their organization.
That was the idea behind Google’s 20 percent time, which brought us Gmail and AdSense and has since been modeled by LinkedIn and even the federal government on a small scale. But the government’s lead agency for developing, testing and implementing new personnel-related policy is working to expand that effort through a budding program called GovConnect. While Google's program appears to be "as good as dead" because employees couldn’t fit in side projects with their regular workload, the government is exploring how it can empower employees to work on passion projects.
“The bottom line for GovConnect is it’s our way of really trying to model what an agile workforce looks like in the federal government,” says Sydney Smith-Heimbrock, deputy associate director for strategic workforce planning at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). “GovConnect works to literally connect agencies with each other.”
The program is part of President Barack Obama’s second-term management agenda, aimed at developing innovative models for improving workforce effectiveness. One of the four pillars outlined in the president’s agenda focuses on people and culture and implementing practices that boost federal recruitment, hiring and employee engagement.
“With engagement we are trying to help agencies both look at different indicators for engagement and also test different ways to promote employees’ ability to innovate and move around a little … so they have a satisfying work experience,” Smith-Heimbrock explains.
There are currently three models under GovConnect:
• GovProject entails micro projects that are initiated by federal managers. Employees set aside up to 20 percent of their workweek to support these projects, even if they’re in another department or bureau. “Think of it like Craigslist,” says Melissa Kline Lee, program manager for GovConnect. Employees apply to work on a project, and managers select members for their team. Projects do not last more than a year and usually range from three weeks to about three months. The Transportation and Energy departments and Social Security Administration will launch pilots to test this model.
• GovStart promotes innovative projects designed by employees, which Kline Lee says will be a cultural change for agencies. The project has to help employees do their jobs better or benefit agencies in other ways. “People on the front lines have insight into how agencies can improve the way they work,” Kline Lee notes. For example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development allowed a small team of employees who manage call centers to create a mobile app that helps low-income families find affordable housing. OPM is piloting GovStart.
• GovCloud will provide agencies access to employee skill sets that exist in the cloud. Workers may be hired by the federal government and paid by any agency to work on specific projects that require technical expertise or other skill sets. This model will function much like the 18F program at the General Services Administration. GSA’s 18F partners with other agencies to develop, test and deploy prototypes for digital tools and services. The Department of Health and Human Services has offered to pilot this model.
Agencies aren’t required to test these initiatives in isolation. Some may decide to implement a hybrid approach and take elements of multiple models. So far, a dozen agencies have expressed interest in developing the GovConnect program and have agreed to design and experiment with workplace agility models. Agencies have spent the past six months designing internal pilot programs that will launch in January, Kline Lee says. Agencies that aren’t ready to start a formal pilot program but want to get involved can joint the community of practice. A revamped MAX.gov will serve as the hub for online program collaboration.
Kline Lee and her team are exploring the use of starter kits to help other agencies that want to launch GovConnect pilots. “The goal is not to just create something good for Washington but for 85 percent of employees who live outside Washington,” she says.