ROWE Transition on “Pause”

A D.C. government agency’s transformation into a “results-only work environment” suffers its first major setback when city officials halt the initiative until the incoming mayor’s transition team has a chance to review it.

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Jody Thompson of CultureRx walks OCTO's senior leadership through a presentation of traditional workplace rules that will be irrelevant in a "results-only work environment. (Center for American Progress/Gadi Dechter)
Jody Thompson of CultureRx walks OCTO's senior leadership through a presentation of traditional workplace rules that will be irrelevant in a "results-only work environment. (Center for American Progress/Gadi Dechter)

This is the fourth in a series of weekly dispatches from the District of Columbia’s information technology department, which is transforming into a “results-only work environment” where employees can work where they want, when they want—so long as they meet predefined goals.

Washington’s 35-year-old Chief Technology Officer Bryan Sivak predicts a radical results-only culture will boost worker productivity by 30 percent and enhance employee morale at a time of hiring freezes and budget cuts. Sivak has agreed to let CAP’s Doing What Works project attend internal meetings and planning sessions as his 550-person agency tries by January 2011 to become the first government department in the country of its size to “Go ROWE.”

Week 4: “Pause”

October 27, 2010: As acoustic guitar music wafts in the background, utopian phrases glide across a big screen in the glass-enclosed “war room” of the D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer:

“Work isn’t a place you go, it’s something you do … every meeting is optional … there are no work schedules …”

Jody Thompson, co-inventor of ROWE, or the “results-only work environment,” smiles as she watches the reactions of the dozen senior managers around the room, here for “leadership education.”

These supervisors are responsible for the hundreds of D.C. government workers scheduled to start transitioning on November 9 to the radically flexible workplace culture Thompson helped pioneer at the Minnesota headquarters of Best Buy in 2003. The idea is to redefine work by results achieved, not time invested, and let employees work where they want, when they want—so long as they meet predefined goals. “We are so excited, you guys,” Thompson, now a ROWE consultant, says in her pronounced Midwestern accent after the PowerPoint show ends. “We can hardly stand it!”

She might have to curb her enthusiasm. Thompson will learn in a few hours that D.C. officials have cancelled the contract with her consulting firm, CultureRx, and decided to postpone the ROWE experiment until the presumptive new mayor, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has had a chance to weigh in.

A Fenty decision

“We don’t want to make policy decisions for the incoming administration that haven’t been vetted by them,” said City Administrator Neil Albert in an interview this week. “So we’re taking this time to make sure they concur with the direction and vision.” The decision to “pause” the results-only experiment was not made at Gray’s bidding, according to Albert, and is part of a general plan to forestall all “high-level policy decisions” for the new mayor’s transition team. “This decision was made solely by the Fenty side,” Albert said, referring to outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty, who will leave office in January.

Still, the move appears to confirm widespread fears of employees at OCTO, as the 550-person information technology agency is known, that the political upheaval of Fenty’s September election loss would endanger CTO Bryan Sivak’s promise of a government workplace that rewards productivity and enterprise—not face time and rule-following. OCTO employees in September focus groups said their chief concern was that “a new mayor will come in and [ROWE] will be doomed.” Employees voiced similar concerns last month at the inaugural meeting of the internal ROWE “design team.”

Sivak said he is taking the development in stride and remains optimistic. “I respect the decision of the administration to investigate this further, and I look forward to having the conversation required to explain the benefits of this initiative,” he said in a brief interview.

The 35-year-old CTO has already agreed to deliver IT services to several government agencies at a more than 30 percent discount next fiscal year thanks to expected productivity gains from ROWE and other management initiatives. The city faces a $175 million budget shortfall.

Albert, the city’s chief administrative officer, said he had a generally favorable view of Sivak’s ROWE experiment. “Conceptually, anything that improves performance and productivity while making employees like stakeholders is worth at least trying,” he said. “The only reason for pause right now is to make sure the incoming administration supports the direction that OCTO is taking.”

Albert stopped short of saying he would recommend Gray continue the experiment. “I’m not sure what the recommendation will be,” he said, adding that the initiative was also being examined by the city’s human resources department.

The Gray transition team has been briefed on ROWE, but Albert was “not at liberty to discuss” those conversations, he said. He indicated a decision was likely within weeks.

Until then, “there are not going to be any further internal meetings and planning sessions until the incoming administration has had a chance to review the initiative,” Sivak said, referring further questions to Albert.

A spokesman for Gray did not return a request for comment.

At 6:10 p.m. on Monday, the day before the election, OCTO employees received an e-mail message with the subject line: “Canceled Event: ROWE: Kickoff.”

Editor’s note: The “Going ROWE” series will continue to publish so long as the results-only experiment remains under active consideration at OCTO. Check back next Wednesday for the latest update.

Gadi Dechter is Associate Director of Government Reform at American Progress. Please send comments, feedback, tips, and suggestions about this series to [email protected].

More articles in the "Going ROWE" series can be found here.

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Gadi Dechter

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