08/14/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

GSA 'First Fridays': A Lesson on Speeding Up Problem-Solving in Government Agencies

In response to a recent column about ways federal leaders can encourage innovation and solve problems quickly, a reader pointed to the successful General Service Administration (GSA) program that helps the agency's information-technology staff members understand their website deficiencies and make their sites more user-friendly.

Known as the "First Fridays Product Testing Program," the GSA asks three recruited participants to perform 35 minutes of tasks on an agency test website. Site stakeholders observe the participants doing the tasks from another room. After the test, the parties meet to identify the three most serious problems, with the agency and GSA agreeing on a goal to implement quick-fix solutions within 30 days. The GSA sends website stakeholders a short report and test recordings, and follows up within two to three weeks after the test.

In a testimonial on the First Friday website, an employee of the National Weather Service said he and his team discovered that average users didn't understand some of the terminology on their site, adding that the changes instituted as a result of the First Fridays Program "saved us a lot of time, a lot of heartache and a lot of money."

In two years, the program has tested and improved more than 40 government websites. Some of the agencies that have been helped include the Department of Labor, the State Department and the Federal Trade Commission. There is no cost to the test site agencies. GSA has one staff person who manages the program and about half a dozen people who work on the initiative as a collateral duty, so it's very cost-effective.

This effort is a version of what is known as the work-out, a method of engaging employees in solving problems fast.

This process, developed by GE's former CEO Jack Welch and his management team in the late 1980s, often involves convening groups of employees and managers from different levels and functions for one-, two- or three-day sessions to surface problems, brainstorm solutions and develop 90-day implementation plans. Decisions are made quickly and the leaders assign an owner to see the idea through to implementation.

The Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education is in the midst of a work-out designed to eliminate or improve inefficient processes involved in administrating grants to states and school districts.

Under the direction of the office's leadership, employees were asked to identify current procedures and requirements that did not add value and could be changed. This crowd-sourcing effort led to a number of recommendations, which were reviewed with the following criteria in mind: Is the new process better than what we're doing now? Is it simpler? Does it reduce the overall labor required, not simply shift the burden? Does it improve service to grantees? Will it maintain or improve current internal controls? Does the change violate department policy?

The leadership accepted several ideas, including streamlining administrative tasks in handling formula and discretionary grants, creating a team of in-house experts to share best practices related to grants administration within each program office, and creating "Grantopedia," an online wiki that will catalogue the processes and tips for various administrative grant actions.

To ensure that the results of the work-out recommendations will be implemented quickly, teams were created and a disciplined process was developed to get buy-in from the affected parties, to collect additional input, to develop action plans, to implement the proposals and to review progress. Each plan also has a set of deadlines, including a commitment from each of the teams to report on their progress to the rest of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at an all staff meeting after two months.

In the meantime, they have created a page on their intranet site where all of the action plans are posted for employees to see. This problem-solving and innovation development process is now in the works, and, if successful, will be used to address other challenges.

There are many naysayers who question the ability of government agencies to cut through the red tape and innovate, but positive change is happening at many agencies and can be accomplished at minimal cost if leaders get on board, listen to their frontline employees and take the initiative.

If you know of any noteworthy innovations taking place in government, please share your ideas and stories in the comment section below or by emailing me at

This post was originally featured on The Washington Post's website.