The Lab at OPM: Reflections on my Detail so Far

Before beginning my detail here at the beginning of July, I had visions of what it would be like working at the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel Management (also known as the Lab at OPM). I had been to its ‘Introduction to Human-Centered Design’ training, and I had reveled in the couches, white boards and abundant amount of sticky notes located in the Lab’s space. I figured working at the Lab would be like working at Google, but in the service of social good. Frankly, I knew my detail was going to be different than my normal work experience. What I didn’t know was if it would live up to my expectations.

See, in my mind, the growing number of innovation labs popping up across the government represents a paradigm shift. To me, these labs are an acknowledgement by the federal government that we need to try new things and work in different ways in order to tackle the truly complex challenges we face as a nation. Consequently, these labs act as prototypes of what the future of government should look like. These labs, then, bear a big responsibility. My detail gives me a glimpse into how one of the innovation labs in government is approaching this duty.

After a month, here’s what I know about the Lab at OPM so far: It’s both a space, located in the sub-basement of OPM’s Theodore Roosevelt Federal Building, and a team that utilizes the approach of human-centered design (HCD) to create new solutions to long-standing government challenges. HCD is a discipline through which solutions and new ideas are created by understanding the needs, behaviors and context of the people who will interact with the final product, service or policy. Many of the activities used during the HCD process involve sticky notes (hence why the Lab maintains a healthy stock of them!). These activities help to push us to think beyond constraints and what we know, forcing us to consider those things that we would not know that we do not know. Hosting these activities in a space that does not look like our normal working environment can be helpful in allowing new ideas to flourish, which is reflected in the design of the Lab’s space to include white boards, couches and open work areas.

While the Lab team uses HCD themselves, they also share the process with other interested federal employees through an ‘Introduction to Human-Centered Design’ course, a project-based training opportunity. As a result, alumni of this course have snowballed into a community of human-centered design advocates, hailing from offices across the government. These alumni are supported through emails (soon to become a formal listserve) and periodic alumni events. The Lab also supports other federal offices’ use of HCD. They mentor team leads in their use of HCD and sometimes work side-by-side on full-scale projects that apply HCD.

What else have I learned about the Lab at OPM? It is just what the government needs. Here’s why:

Partnerships are real here.

I define ‘real’ partnerships as those where responsibilities are truly shared among the partners. In my month here, I have witnessed the Lab share the full weight of projects with their partners. The redesign of USAJOBS is a great example. The Lab team works hand-in-hand with the USAJOBS team. They interview applicants, hiring managers and other key people using the system together, design and test prototypes together, and present on the status of the project together. With that said, different members of the team play different roles, based on their expertise. Still, the approach is one of an integrated team anchored in collaboration.

‘Real’ partnerships breed an environment in which teamwork can flourish. The types of challenges that government currently faces require committed teams who together work toward a shared goal, removing competing interests that can sometimes derail a project.

Skill diversity among team members is encouraged.

I’ve noticed that the Lab actively engages staff with an assortment of backgrounds. This is illustrated through the recruitment efforts for its core staff team, who have collectively studied design, education and curriculum development, business and public policy. The creation of Human Innovation Fellow positions, or HIFs, furthers this commitment, bringing external design and innovation talent to the Lab’s team. In addition, the stream of detailees the Lab supports maintains team and skill diversity. Currently, the Lab has individuals on detail from Army, Housing and Urban Development and Health and Human Services.

The variety of skills and backgrounds on one team creates a diverse environment in which new ideas can be built. It also allows for quite a bit of work to be done in-house. Together, these two items remove the normal time spent on writing and competing contracts. This can then increase the time the government spends on making sure that it is solving the right problem and, ultimately, creating a solution that appropriately addresses that particular problem.

Exploring the unknown is a constant responsibility.

The story of the Lab’s creation illustrates this in and of itself. To my knowledge, no other federal agency had an innovation lab using human-centered design when the Lab was created in March of 2012. So, with no similar space existing in the government, the founders of the Lab were able to envision it and build it. Similarly, no government office had adopted HCD as the mechanism through which to tackle challenges. Since its inception, the Lab has been able to effectively apply the methodology to a variety of government-specific situations. Currently, the Lab is redesigning its model and, in doing so, is not confining themselves to what has already been done in the government here or abroad.

Remaining satisfied with the status quo often results in missed opportunities and the eventual disappointment of our most important customers: citizens. With the world constantly changing, the government needs to be changing as well. This means that, as a government, we need to be regularly challenging ourselves to think about what the future could look like.

So far, I am excited by my experience at the Lab at OPM and am eager to learn more about their model for innovation in government. As I do, I’ll be sure to continue to share what I discover.

Blair Corcoran de Castillo is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


Originally published at www.govloop.com on August 5, 2015.

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