New Policies and Experiments for Gov Learning

Unsurprisingly, a number of learning professionals attended today’s GovLoop event, The Future of Learning in Government. Our closing keynote speaker, Sydney Smith-Heimbrock, PhD and Chief Learning Officer at OPM, started off by giving them high praise.

“Learning professionals are my favorite people,” she said. “Why? Because you all live every day doing more with nothing.”

Keeping a large workforce equipped with the necessary skills to perform their roles is challenging. In government, that task is even more difficult because budgets and resources are tightly constrained. Additionally, there’s a technology and cultural curve that must be overcome. As Smith-Heimbrock said, “Learning in government means driving cultural change in a 20th century organization, to pull it kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”

Nevertheless, Smith-Heimbrock is dedicated to overcoming these challenges to create an exceptional learning environment for federal employees. In her speech, she detailed her dual strategy of policy and experimentation in order to achieve that goal.

Crafting policies to enable change
The first part of Smith-Heimbrock’s strategy is to work with the interagency Chief Learning Officer Council (CLOC) to examine the policies that impact learning in government. “We asked ourselves to what extent is the current environment enabling or constraining radical change?” she said.

Why radical change? Smith-Heimbrock explained that government should not only be training its employees, but doing so in a way that meets the expectations of those employees. As more millennials join the federal workforce, those expectations are changing to anticipate  constant training that is fun and mobile. “For millennials, work equals learning and learning equals play,” she said.

Now, CLOC is determining the regulations, standards, platforms, and other supporting materials that will be required to create this learning environment. According to Smith-Heimbrock, they are in the infant stages right now but starting to gain momentum. Once they have identified requirements, the next step is to use those developed standards to educate all federal employees to make them smart consumers of learning and development.

Executing tangible experiments
But while Smith-Heimbrock and her team seek long-term change to policies and procedures, they’re also working on immediate solutions to learning challenges. OPM has already developed a number of experiments through its Innovation Lab that are set to revolutionize federal training. Smith-Heimbrock offered two examples.

The first is the online HR University, which offers a central portal for government HR professionals. Smith-Heimbrock explained that every agency has its own approach to developing its HR workforce, each with its own career paths, mentoring programs, and competency models. But in reality, civilian HR roles within the federal government are extremely similar across agencies. “So why not take one community framework to HR development, put that in an easily accessible place, and share the research we’ve already developed?” asked Smith-Heimbrock. does just that, and it’s already realizing results. To date, Smith-Heimbrock said the portal has saved over $127 million. Those savings can then be funneled back into other workforce development initiatives, including taking lessons from and spreading them to other cross-agency workforce groups.

Smith-Heimbrock also discussed GovConnect, a new worker exchange program that rethinks the traditional 120-day details for cross-agency training. OPM wants to encourage federal employees to continue training across departments, yet it realized that most agencies no longer had the bench strength to allow high performers to take extended leave for extra-agency training. GovConnect is piloting a new approach at select agencies, allowing employees to learn from other agencies for briefer periods (e.g. 3 weeks) or in different increments of time (e.g. 4 hrs/day).

Ultimately, Smith-Heimbrock and her team of CLOs want to update the entirety of federal learning, in order to meet new expectations and face the realities of constrained resources. These experiments offer avenues for immediate change, while policy initiatives can ensure the long-term salience of government learning innovation.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Richard Lee

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