We recently began our partnership with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) on the GovConnect initiative, which helps agencies create a culture of excellence based on collaboration and teamwork.

To develop federal talent that can work and learn across boundaries, we need new practices and technologies. GovConnect helps agencies test and scale these approaches so we can build a 21st-century system that will better respond to demands and handle cross-agency program and policy challenges. It will do all this without the unnecessary limitation of organizational silos by implementing a new model of a mobile, agile, innovative, and skilled federal workforce. The OPM team, which includes staff trained by the OPM Innovation Lab and Stanford’s d.school, will develop this model in collaboration with other agencies.

18F signed onto this initiative to innovate the federal workforce, a goal that complements the General Services Administration’s belief that long-term success requires a strong, diverse, and optimized workforce.

We’re most well known for delivering digital services, which sometimes leads people to believe our team is composed purely of technologists who write code. However, some of our toughest challenges are understanding the problems facing our agency partners and the people they seek to positively impact. Thoroughly researching a problem can lead to new approaches or the identification of existing solutions that can be scaled or augmented with technology. Like OPM’s Innovation Lab, we investigate problems with a human-centered design approach, starting each project with a “discovery” phase to deeply understand how people work, the challenges they face, and what their needs are.

The discovery phase includes a mix of face-to-face interviews, remote collaboration, shadowing, and participatory workshops intended to engage the user with the design problem. We do all this in collaboration with our agency partners. Throughout discovery, design, and development, we work to validate our assumptions by always including the people who will use the services. We’re excited to work with OPM, which has been an active leader of the federal “design thinking” community with their Innovation Lab program.

The GovConnect initiative is a fascinating laboratory for research into the challenges of developing and attracting talent in the federal workforce. Our current government model was designed for a different kind of work and predates current technology and management practices. GovConnect is applying human-centered design methods to reframe the experience of working and learning in the federal government.

The story so far

One goal of President Obama’s second-term management agenda is to improve the effectiveness of the federal workforce - a workforce that makes up almost 3 million civilian employees across the world. Reaching this goal will increase employee engagement, raise productivity, and potentially attract a new generation of public servants.

Several successful initiatives provided early proof of a new collaborative model of workforce development: Open Opportunities (developed by GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies), the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Skills Marketplace, the White House’s Innovation Toolkit, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Innovation Time. Each of these efforts seek to tap the passion, energy, and ingenuity of federal employees and allow people to develop their professional skills by tackling problems that face federal agencies.

Thanks to the success of these initiatives and the passion of our partners at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), GovConnect was born. GovConnect is an agile workforce initiative sponsored by OPM and co-led by EPA to encourage agencies to think differently about work, one that develops and connects the federal workforce, encourages innovation, and helps develop critical skills and build professional networks across the government to where and when they’re needed. GovConnect is a network of existing and new programs that seek to achieve this goal.

GovConnect phase one

In April 2014, OPM’s call for participation led to the selection of a cohort of pilot agencies to explore activating their own workforce through new approaches to work. Based on interviews with existing programs, the GovConnect team identified three models:

GovProject — Employees can develop professional skills and expertise on a part-time basis (for example, up to 20 percent time) to support project opportunities within the employee’s agency or in another government agency. This model would also support the rapid deployment of cross-agency tiger teams to respond to complex problems or time-sensitive needs.

GovStart — Employees can work on innovative initiatives on a part-time basis (for example, up to 20 percent time) and develop professional networks within and across agencies. These micro-projects are grassroots employee driven as opposed to management driven.

GovCloud — Employees are hired by one agency and are detailed out to agencies on a project-by-project basis to address critical skills gaps. GovCloud employees may work on one project at a time or work on multiple projects at once.

For the past year, pilot agencies have made progress on diverse initiatives. A GovConnect pilot does not require technology to get started and could be as simple as a conference room with whiteboards and sticky notes, or be driven by Google Forms and email, or include postings on a pre-existing WordPress blog or SharePoint site.

In addition, some mentor programs have flourished. EPA’s Skills Marketplace has become established within the EPA as an effective resource for managers. Open Opportunities has grown dramatically and is now open to all federal employees.

18F has developed the Midas software platform that fuels the Open Opportunities program. We believe that many of the successful pilots could be scaled with software and will use the research to improve the Midas platform. However, the GovConnect primary researcher will work separately from the Midas team and 18F is open to learning from their research.

What will 18F do?

18F researchers have already started connecting with pilot mentors, pilot agencies, and private sector and nonprofit firms. The goal of this research is to learn what patterns of success, and failure, might exist and what have been the growing pains of successful initiatives. Initial research will be conducted in the form of one-on-one interviews, as well as reviewing metrics and other research already conducted by the GovConnect teams. By working directly with agencies who are developing pilots, have launched successful programs, or who have run into barriers to adoption, 18F will take a human-centered approach to developing the next step in the GovConnect solution.

The outcome of this discovery phase will be the production of a Starter Kit with proven techniques from other agencies, including non-technical, real-world approaches as well as technical solutions that can help programs scale.

If you’d like to learn more about this research, or if you have information to share from potential initiatives of your own, feel free to contact us at 18f-govconnect@gsa.gov.