20 Percent Time

It’s Thursday afternoon and instead of heading inside the courthouse, I’m entering a classroom, taking off my jacket and tie, and rolling up my sleeves. I am preparing to teach a social service class, a big change from my normal courtroom duties reviewing rap sheets and making sentencing recommendations to judges.

Teaching the class is part of my 20 percent time, the one day a week that I spend working on projects not part of my job description. We got the idea from Google, which encourages its engineers to spend one day a week dreaming up new products, like Google News.

Transporting a management practice from sunny Silicon Valley to the rough and tumble of the Bronx courthouse may seem like a strange idea, but it’s become an essential part of how we do business.

We use 20 percent time not only to keep morale high in a busy project that handles close to 1,000 new cases a month, but to improve the work that we do.

When Ramon Semorile, a community service crew supervisor, became concerned that his clients weren't getting the same access to drug treatment and job training as participants with a social service mandate, he approached the clinic staff for training. "I knew what we were doing in [the social service clinic], but I wanted to be able to do it myself," Ramon said.

A native Spanish-speaker, the clinic staff asked Ramon to help design a social service class (one of 16 classes we teach weekly) that would be taught in Spanish. Before long, Ramon was teaching the class on his own. "Someone needs to help those who don't speak English," Ramon said.

The experience of teaching a class helps Ramon feel confident assessing needs and making service referrals to individuals working on his crew. "I can focus more on helping [our clients] understand the services that can help them," he said.

We also use 20 percent time to solve problems that are unique to Bronx Community Solutions. Unlike other problem-solving courts, which focus on a single courtroom and a single judge, our project is designed to be available to the over 40 judges working in the Bronx. With only four resource coordinators, however, we can't reach all those courts, nor can we cover night and weekend arraignments (the court is open sixteen hours a day and seven days a week).

Danielle's solution to the problem of limited staff was to recruit and train project staff in other departments to work part-time as resource coordinators. Now, we have staff working in arraignments every weekday evening and on Saturdays, as well as in other court parts who request our help during normal working hours.

Other Bronx Community Solutions staff members use their 20 percent time to come up with new and innovative ideas. Edwin Williams is a member of the New York City Public Safety Corps, an AmeriCorps public service project that provides him with a small living stipend and college tuition assistance in exchange for a year's full-time work at Bronx Community Solutions.

Edwin uses his 20 percent time to edit and revise the forms used in the intake office, such as client contracts. "When I first looked at the contracts, the text seemed old and hard to understand" he told me. Edwin changed the layout to make the contract clearer and more visually appealing. He also created, and regularly updates, an attendance chart that keeps intake staff from overbooking social service classes and community service crews.

We don't make twenty percent time a requirement for staff, but pretty much everybody wants a project they can call their own. For example, Aubrey spends his 20 percent time writing and editing the blog, and Maria is working with a local high school to create a summer-long criminal justice program (modeled on the Center for Court Innovation's Youth Justice Board) for students who need extra credit to graduate on time.

Are there any other court projects (or non-profit organizations) that use a version of Googles' 20 percent time? If so, I'd love to hear about them.


Anonymous said…
I love the 20% idea--our 25-person juvenile justice research office would benefit hugely if we all stretched ourselves that way. But how do you get higher-ups to see it?
Dear Anonymous,

I think that the best argument for 20 percent time is that it can help solve specific problems. In our case, here at Bronx Community Solutions, 20 percent time has helped us solve staffing problems. Staff members have chosen to use their 20 percent time in the courtroom as part time resource coordinators (our representatives in the courtroom), which has allowed us to extend our available staff of 3 full time resource coordinators to cover 5 day shifts, 5 night shifts and 1 weekend shift in the courtroom. An equally important argument for 20 percent time is that it keeps staff interested and engaged in their work. Having a break to work on other projects within the organization promotes creativity and new ideas. Make a list of projects that you could work on during your 20 percent time. How would this time benifit both you and your office?