By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

OPM’s latest workplace experiments

 John Berry, the head of the Office of Personnel Management, is proving to be one of the loudest voices in the Obama administration (along with Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra) to champion management innovation. After eight years of hibernation and more of a top-down, military-style approach to management improvement, the idea of trying new things as a way to improve government management is coming back, which is good news.

A recent article by Alyssa Rosenberg at Govexec.com discussed a workplace experiment that Berry is piloting with 400 employees at OPM. The experiment, called the Results-Only Work Environment, is based on an approach first tried at the headquarters of electronics retailer Best Buy. (Nice to be looking for private-sector examples that might help government work better.) The experiment, according to Rosenberg's article, "eliminates mandatory work hours and even the requirement that employees come into the office." Instead, "it evaluates employees only on their performance."

Will this work? Of course, we can't be sure. And the idea certainly is not one size fits all: Jobs differ in how easy it is to evaluate performance, and some require people to physically present for the assigned hours (people dealing with the public at a Social Security office for example). The program will be formally evaluated, Berry says, and if it’s not working, "we'll go back to the drawing board."

That's the right approach. Many innovations were probably not good ideas in the first place. Others are plausible ideas that turn out not to work when tried. (One caution to note is that, as the renowned organizational scholar James March has argued, innovations generally produce an initial decline in performance while employees learn how to do them, and innovations are often cancelled too early when this occurs.) Innovation is valuable because, since government doesn't work as well as it should, some kinds of changes, including innovative ways to do business, are needed if we are to improve government performance.

So let John Berry and Vivek Kundra have an internal contest for who can best represent the spirit of innovation in the administration. Let others join as well -- especially managers and executives actually out in line agencies. This shouldn't be limited to management leaders at OMB or OPM.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 08, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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