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How Agencies Can Support Employee Professional Development

The words, Opportunities Just Ahead, are on a green billboard with the sunrise behind it.

Providing professional development for over 100,000 employees is no easy task. To build on the existing skills of their workforce, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has piloted AgOpportunity, a program that matches USDA employees with projects that need their skills and interest.

The idea for AgOpportunity came from the Partnership for Public Service’s Excellence in Government (EIG) Fellowship program. As part of the year-long program, fellows were split into teams and charged with creating a results-orientated program that could effect real change in government.

A four member team consisting of employees from the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, and Transportation Security Administration chose employee engagement as their project focus, with AgOpportunity the resulting pilot.

Finding an Employee Engagement Platform

AgOpportunity tasks are posted on Open Opportunities, a platform that helps agencies tap into federal expertise and provides professional development opportunities to federal employees.

Nadine Pembleton, EIG Fellow and Director of Building Management Services for TSA, said that utilizing Open Opportunities as a platform was critical in the implementation of AgOpportunity.

“We had a very short period of time, and all of our attention was [initially] focused on the idea of coming up with a vehicle to match employees with projects, which would have taken all the time allocated,” Pembleton said. “One of my teammates had heard about Open Opportunities, and it was fortuitous in the timing.”

Aligning AgOpporunity with Strategic Priorities

The Fellows met with the 17 USDA agency heads and chief information officers to propose the idea. They gained buy-in to pilot the program with the 4,000 IT specialists within USDA. The program was tied to USDA’s brand with the name “AgOpportunity.”

Ted Kaouk, EIG Fellow and Special Assistant to the Chief Information Officer at USDA, said that the agency was a perfect place to launch the pilot.

“USDA is a complex agency with a very diverse mission: everything from ensuring hungry kids have lunches to fighting wildfires to food safety inspection to providing loans in rural America for hospitals and housing,” Kaouk said. “We really wanted to look at something that could support all the employees at USDA. With the USDA CIO Council’s backing, we had people we could target (4,000 IT employees). We developed four projects focused on cybersecurity, open data, strategic sourcing, and competency model development, which align with the USDA CIO Council’s FY15 priorities.”

Implementing the Pilot

The Fellows reached out to over 4,000 staff and managers at USDA to socialize the idea and emailed all IT specialists. Traffic to the Open Opportunities website spiked after the email, and 75 Open Opportunities profiles were created by USDA staff. Seven USDA employees signed up for an Open Opportunity, and all four pilot projects got matches.

Meeting Real Needs and Fostering Connections

USDA is looking at expanding the effort, including a second round of pilot IT projects and a round of non-IT projects. The results of the first pilot have enabled Kaouk to tout the benefits of this work on a larger scale.

“We were able to organize with the CIO Council, and we were able to execute their strategic plan more effectively by having projects align with their priorities and by getting people involved that were otherwise not available,” Kaouk said.

The Fellows surveyed the IT specialists who were targeted in the pilot, and even employees who did not sign up for an AgOpportunity indicated that they were interested in the program. The majority of respondents also said that they found the available AgOpportunity projects to be interesting.

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