The door handle on the main entrance to the Office of Personnel Management is crooked. There’s a reddish hue around it that looks like rust. The entire building is a throwback to times long past. But descend into the sub-basement and you’ll find a portal to Silicon Valley.

The California-style technology hub is a fitting place to transport OPM problem solvers, given the nature of the agency’s ongoing challenges.

In the fall of 2011, the federal jobs Web site,, 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.

The entrance to the "Innovation Lab" at the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C. The lab cost $750,000 and is located in the building's sub-basement. (Emi Kolawole)

“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.

Cassie Cunfer, 24, who arrived at OPM via the agency’s internship program, works part-time as an illustrator in the Innovation Lab. Cunfer, an art minor in college, describes herself as someone who “always loved to draw.” When she found out about the opportunity, her reaction was “sign me up.”

In her part-time role, Cunfer helps teams visualize problems and their proposed solutions, guiding them with her illustrations in an effort to help them see problems in a new way.

The space is open to employees across the federal government, but OPM staff have priority in terms of scheduling.

Sydney Smith-Heimbrock, deputy associate director for strategic workforce planning, serves as the lab’s lead facilitator, bringing more than 15 years of government experience.

“Five years ago,” she said, “I would never have believed this could have happened here.”

The space has exceeded Berry’s expectations, as the office is “trying to do more with less,” struggling with a rising demand for resources and a declining budget.

As for, it has since bounced back and out of the national headlines after extensive technological fixes and public relations triage. But that’s not the end of OPM’s list of problems to solve — not even close.

“Every day,” said Berry, “there are three new ones.”

That includes the handling of federal employee retirement. The system has experienced backlogs as the number of federal retirees continues to grow. The new lab is playing home to problem-solving around this issue, and Dillaman, in her role as senior adviser, is focusing on the challenge. Other programs, such as open enrollment for federal employees, are also being addressed in the space.

Berry is under no illusions: A pretty space does not solutions make.

“A space does matter,” said Berry, sitting in one of the Innovation Lab’s side offices, visibly pleased with the result of years of planning and work. But, he continued, “the space is just a room.”

Read more news and ideas on Innovations and read more by Emi Kolawole.