18F tech experts help OPM reshape how feds work

The government's digital consultancy is applying its flexible approach to solving problems more human than technical in nature.

18F, the General Services Administration’s year-old digital consultancy, isn’t your typical government office. While it gets its name from the address of GSA’s Washington headquarters, its concept of “office” is more virtual than physical.

Its 100 or so technologists live and work throughout the country. They form and reform teams as necessary. Their approach to government tech problems is nontraditional as well. Rather than working behind closed doors until they get it just right, they publish as they go, letting the public test and improve upon their work.

Two of 18F’s experts now are applying this approach to problems more human than technical in nature. Sarah Allen, a San Francisco-based project manager, and Brad Nunnally, a user experience (UX) designer in St. Louis, have teamed up with the Office of Personnel Management to see if they can make  the rest of government work in a way that is more like 18F.

Allen and Nunnally are drafting a kickstarter guide by the end of the month that they said would help any agency become more flexible and creative in solving its problems. While Allen and Nunnally are living examples of an agile workforce, the guide will draw on insights they’ve gathered from the organizers of pilot programs at about 10 agencies, including GSA and OPM.

Their work is being done under the umbrella program GovConnect. OPM launched it after recognizing that agencies were experimenting with agile workforce programs here and there, Allen said. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency lets managers recruit employees outside their division for short-term projects through an online matchmaking site called Skills Marketplace. GSA’s Open Opportunities invites federal employees across the government to collaborate on projects, like testing a new website or helping an agency increase its social media presence. (Allen has helped GSA build the Web platform for that program, called Midas.)


Now OPM wants to make these experiments a government norm. GovConnect seeks to “amplify and encourage more agencies to work in this very effective way,” said Allen.

So far, the GovConnect team has identified three approaches that agencies could emulate. “GovProject,” similar to EPA’s Skills Marketplace, would let employees work on side projects launched by agency management. “GovStart” would let them work on projects of their own choosing that could help their agencies. “GovCloud”— the most similar to the 18F model — would let employees float from one agency to another on a project-by-project basis.

To Allen, the program offers a way of making the government more efficient, while making employees more satisfied.

“You’ll see people who are devoting the same amount of time to a project, but because it’s one they’re passionate about and the have the opportunity to work with people whom they wouldn’t normally work with, that accelerates their new ideas and what they do,” she said. “So they get fired up about things that they would otherwise be doing in isolation. They’re seeing the work product increase in a really positive way.”

Supervisors may have misgivings about letting their employees deviate from their day-to-day responsibilities, Nunnally said.

“You always find resistance when something is new, especially if its unproven,” he said.

But Allen asserted that those same supervisors have much to gain from loaning their employees to other parts of government.

“When there are more people in your group that are well connected to other agencies or other teams within your agency, then your group is more empowered,” she said. “When you have another project that needs to interact with another team at your agency, suddenly you have all of these people with connections and they’re used to working in that way.”

The kickstarter guide will emphasize the importance of building a broad base of support within the organization, Nunnally said. Programs need a top-level supporter to lend a hand or make a phone call if the program runs into opposition, he said. Similarly, marketing is important, whether to encourage employees to participate or supervisors to let them.

And, while GovConnect isn’t a tech project per se — Allen and Nunnally call it “tech agnostic” because there’s no single digital platform for the projects — the technology can make all the difference between a small pilot program and a broader initiative. A portion of the guide will be spent on how to choose and build resources, Nunnally said.

Many of the current projects have stemmed from federal employees’ own desires to experiment with how they work, he said. They have built the programs in their spare time using the resources available to them. They’ve run into tech problems, however, when they try to scale up the programs.

That might be the biggest difference between those projects and 18F. When it comes to agile work, the rest of government has yet to replicate 18F’s tech tools. The team’s plethora of cloud-based software, such as Google Apps for Government and Slack, and its staff’s eagerness to adopt them — make the physical distance between coworkers irrelevant. The tools enable coworkers to virtually brainstorm, share documents and collaborate.

“Without those, there’s no way we’d operate,” said Nunnally. Often agencies do not use these tools because of overstated security fears, he said. But more often than not, the root of the problem is cultural.

“Technology is part of the problem, but oftentimes the bigger problem, and the harder one to solve, is the people problem or the organization problem,” he said. “It’s always hard to change the way things have always been done if, on the surface, it does’t look like anything is broken.”

But the government’s existing pilot programs give Allen hope that things will change.

“This work is so important to people that they are making do with whatever tools they have to make it happen,” she said. “But if we get the right tools in their hands, then they can be incredibly empowered.”

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