In the fall of 2011, the federal jobs Web site, USAJobs.gov, was a mess.
The site crashed continually and came under blistering criticism from the media and the general public. A steady stream of vitriol flowed through social media. The situation was so dire that OPM Director John Berry was called before Congress to explain what, exactly, had gone so terribly wrong.
The team in charge of the Web site needed new leadership — a Patton of sorts. And, in the eyes of some of her colleagues, Kathy Dillaman was just that type of leader.
“Immediately after launch it was clear that we made some missteps,” said Dillaman, looking back. She currently serves as a senior adviser to the director after her retirement as associate director of investigations.
At the time, Dillaman brought 35 years of experience — all at OPM — to bear on the USAJobs problem. Her mandate from Berry was clear: “Either we fix it,” she said, “or kill it.”
Within 24 to 48 hours of taking the reins, Dillaman said OPM had a fully staffed war room, complete with young, social-media-savvy workers.
In the process of setting up, Dillaman’s team scrambled for available space, displacing people to make sure that everyone was where they needed to be, with some of the war-room spaces lasting weeks and, in some cases, months.
A sub-basement’s patch of green
The politics of office space, according to OPM staff, is charged and complex — an all but inflexible ecosystem. So, when Matthew Collier, one of Berry’s senior advisers, sought to create a new gathering place for innovative problem-solving — something clearly needed in the wake of the USAJobs fiasco — he had to first solve the problem of finding a place to put it.
An upper floor was out of the question. That drove Collier and his team underground. In a move reminiscent of a scene from the 1999 film “Office Space,” they eventually found themselves in the sub-basement.
Boxes of records had to be removed. The space was in such shoddy shape that it needed asbestos abatement and other enhancements critical to making it fit for occupancy.
Improvements and construction cost $750,000. Much of that money, according OPM spokesman John Marble, would have been spent for general building repairs anyway.
Construction was finished in January and it was open to federal employees in March.
Today, a large, green wall with large white text and graphics announces the OPM “Innovation Lab” — a pristine workspace that brings the breezy, open environment typical of Silicon Valley straight into the dank, industrial bowels of government.
If not for the lack of free food, the space could easily be confused with one of the breathless startups that litter San Francisco. Everything from the large, wooden barn door to the chalk-board-painted walls, curved, interlocking white boards and Ikea furniture makes the space an oasis for the federal worker weary of the ubiquitous blah of the federal workplace. There’s even a small kitchen and lockers for storing personal belongings. The cost of any additional perks, such as orange- and mint-cucumber-flavored water, comes out of employees’ pockets.