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Holacracy in Government: a recruitment and retention strategy

e-gov, a division in the State of Washington, is leading a controlled Holacracy experiment in government

Photo of Michael DeAngelo
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One of the challenges in state government is in hiring and retaining talent, especially technology talent. Every company has this challenge but it's particularly difficult for government organizations because government is unable to compete with private industry on the basis of salary. In Washington State the challenge is magnified by having powerhouses like Amazon, Microsoft, Expedia, F5, Real Networks, and many others existing in the same region.

State government will probably never be able to compete on salary, but state government can create a value proposition for prospective hires that is compelling and extremely competitive. There are three core elements to the strategy: 1) Mission, 2) Professional growth, and 3) Empowerment culture.

There are several experiments and initiatives that e-gov, a division within the State of Washington that has the purpose of transforming government, is conducting to test the idea. One of the experiments uses Holacracy as a way to systemically create and measure improvements in employee empowerment. The experiment started out as a one-year journey to learn more about self-management by doing it in a team of 15 people within the Office of the Chief Information Officer. Simultaneously, management began running the Holacracy practice as a platform for discussing Holacracy's potential with leaders in state government. Experts in HR policy, Union operations, State law, and others are engaged in the experiment. The journey is captured in the State of Washing Holacracy blog.

Now, after a year of operating Holacracy, the state is initiating a controlled scientific experiment with the help of the Harvard Business School researcher, Mike Lee, to test the hypothesis that Holacracy improves employee, customer, and organizational outcomes. The experiment is being constructed to have a "Treatment" group and a "Comparison" group. The Treatment group will be a number of teams from a 600 person state agency that will be learning and practicing Holacracy. The Comparison group will contain a number of teams operating as usual. Both groups will be measured multiple times throughout the one year experiment.

What are the implications for your organizational structure?

There are two implications of this experiment for state government. The first is the longer view and vision of how self-management may transform the state government experience. If Holacracy proves to be successful at creating an empowered workforce that is more responsive to change, then state government has a real chance at being a competitive employer in the region--a chance at being an employer that can attract people who have a passion for having a positive impact in the community and create a government that is responsive to the needs of its citizens.

The second challenge will arise more quickly. Assuming the experiment shows the expected improvements in our organization, leadership will be confronted with the question "Now what?" Having results of the study in hand, what will government really be willing to do to implement this level of positive of change?


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Photo of Kathy

Very interesting, Michael - thank you for sharing with us! Flooris Van der Walt  mentioned hitting barriers, especially cultural barriers, to implement throughout his entire organization after implementing Holacracy in the legal department.

I'd be curious to hear your insights on how you got buy-in from various parts of your organization to test out Holacracy as a “treatment.” In other words, how you went from learning about self-management within one office to getting buy-in to implement the experiment throughout the 600 person state agency.

Photo of Michael

Not to offer this as the perfect approach but this was essentially the strategy:
1. Build support around the business problem by articulating the problem and one possible strategy. Holacracy is a piece of the strategy
2. Reduce risk by approaching the idea incrementally. We've been running for a year in one group and now reaching out to teams for a larger experiment limited to one year.
3. Reduced friction by looking for people willing to "help" with the experiment by opting in to the experiment while selling the value of training and exposure to new management practices
4. Communicate frequently on the larger business problem, vision, and the proposed strategy