September 3, 2009 at 12:35 pm #79567
From the Wired.com blog Epicenter:
What Obama Is Learning from Facebook, Google and Ideo
* By Eliot Van Buskirk
* August 31, 2009
When Barack Obama hired John Berry to head his Office of Personnel Management earlier this year, the president did not mince words.
“John, we’ve got to make it cool again,” Obama said to his new hire.
Many of the nation’s brightest graduates are snapped up by tech startups claiming to offer not only high compensation but the feeling of being part of something exciting — not to mention such perks as meals by gourmet chefs, exercise and laundry facilities, haircuts, massages and other amenities designed to smooth the transition from college to adulthood while instilling a sense of loyalty.
The president’s mandate to the director: Bring that approach to the federal government, the largest and arguably most bureaucratic employer in the country, with nine million people on its payroll if you count retirees and dependents. The government has much to learn from Silicon Valley innovators about how to attract young, competent employees. As things stand now, much of the federal workforce is nearing retirement age, and is unfamiliar with the latest popular communication techniques — many of which they’re prohibited from accessing on their computers.
“We don’t currently use any of the technology solutions that are out there well,” explained Director Berry in an exclusive interview with Wired.com. “Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — the modern methods of connectivity — we don’t take advantage of at all. Essentially, we’re missing a whole generation.”
To learn how cutting-edge firms hire, facilitate communication between, and retain employees, Director Berry recently met with Facebook, Google and design firm Ideo on a recent trip to California, also touring each facility to see how they’re laid out in the hope of replicating some of that magic in a federal setting. He plans to attend such meetings with other companies in the future.
The impetus here, according to Berry, is that Obama wants to bring back the same youthful energy to governmental staffing that helped the United States to put a man on the moon.
“When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the average age of the federal workers who were at Mission Control — the people who got him there safely and got him home — was in the late twenties,” Berry said. “We’re not the first generation to try to involve young folks… the government did it very effectively in the ’60s, and those people produced miracles.”
The government’s approaches to recruitment and technology are broken, Berry admitted, because they ignore social networking, modern perks aimed at maintaining a healthy “work/life balance,” and today’s communication technologies. All of that could change. Berry said he’s “still in discovery,” but that he’s considering installing Skype or something like it, and possibly an open-source Twitter client like Identi.ca for facilitating communication between federal employees and with potential applicants.
“Many of our policies and practices are — I wouldn’t go so far back as the 19th century, but certainly the 1950s in terms of their approach,” Berry said. “Our hiring, for instance, has become so cumbersome and so complicated that it is a nightmare… we need to make that simpler… allowing people a fair shot at a federal job.”
A career federal employee, Berry knows whereof he speaks. Under Bill Clinton, he managed the Secret Service and functioned as CFO and COO of the 66,000-person strong Department of the Interior. Under George W. Bush, he was director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and of the National Zoo.
The Bush administration signed an exclusive five-year contract with Monster.com, but that contract is up for competition next July. “We’re looking at all options,” Berry said, including possibly a mix of several strategies rather than outsourcing employee outreach to a single contractor, the way the previous administration did. Citizens who would like to be involved in the process can read (PDF) and comment on the OPM’s 2010 Strategic Plan as part of this administration’s more transparent approach.
To widen and lengthen the feedback loop, the government is considering tapping Google to launch a YouTube “world jam” (a Vivek Kundra term) that would allow anyone in the world, from any sector, to contribute ideas on how to improve the U.S. government’s employment policies. “We’re welcoming input from for-profit, non-profit, other countries, academicians, labor unions,” Berry said. “Anybody who’s got an idea, we want to hear it.” Meanwhile, an October 28 Harvard conference offers academicians another opportunity to offer their ideas.
Berry also sat down with Facebook (focusing on recruiting) and Ideo (focusing on performance evaluation). “It was just great,” he said, “phenomenal people, outside-the-box thinking, creative approaches to how they manage people — and they’re wrestling with some of the same issues we’re wrestling with… what is the fairest way to appraise peoples’ performance, how do you hold employees accountable, so that they’re doing a good job but you’re not micromanaging them to the point where they just throw their hands up and quit? That’s a tough thing… when I was at Google, they said they’d been trying a different approach, but frankly aren’t happy with it, so they’re going to throw it out and start over.”
As a result of those meetings, the government will likely create some sort of Facebook presence to attract young, tech-savvy applicants, and will also participate in an Ideo-coordinated consortium of 10 or so private high-tech companies working together to arrive at best-practice standards for appraising employees. But before the government can put those standards into place, it needs to focus on recruiting — and that means, in Obama’s words, making civil service “cool” again.
“Barack Obama is the first president since Kennedy who really gets this,” Berry said, “who understands the importance of the civil service — and that without it, this Constitution and this republic will not survive. We need the best and the brightest, and we won’t get it by denigrating them or saying they’re somehow second-class to the private sector.”
Inefficient federal employees from mailmen to members of Congress have been comedy staples seemingly forever. The wheels are turning slowly, but if Berry’s plan comes to fruition, the resulting infusion of youthful energy could pull the government out of the culture of the ’50s, silencing those critics.
Considering the job market these days, promising graduates could find the idea of working for the federal government quite “cool” indeed.
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