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Cost-cutting ideas from the front lines

Feb. 7, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By TIM KAUFFMAN   |   Comments

Every budget contains proposals to cut wasteful spending. What's different about the 2011 budget unveiled last week is the source of those ideas: front-line federal employees.

The budget request includes 20 money-saving ideas culled from the more than 38,000 suggestions employees made last fall in the first-ever SAVE Award contest.

"The administration is making a statement: We want to get waste out of our budget and everyone needs to do their part," said Marc Goldwein, policy director at the nonprofit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The budget includes the winning SAVE Award idea from Nancy Fichtner, a fiscal program support clerk at the Grand Junction, Colo., Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

She suggested that VA hospitals let veterans take home any unused prescriptions after they're discharged, instead of throwing the medications away.

Fichtner's idea won endorsements from 22,251 of her fellow feds during the contest.

VA has begun work on the plan to relabel and dispense the prescriptions. The five-year savings will exceed $14 million.

The VA initiative is one of 15 ideas included in the budget that can be adopted without any action by Congress, the White House said. Other ideas will:

Allow citizens applying for Social Security benefits to schedule appointments online. Most appointments are now made over the phone.

Shifting the process online will free employees to help other customers and save nearly $1 million over five years.

Let the Forest Service deposit money collected from visitors to forests and campgrounds into the Treasury account on a monthly basis, rather than weekly.

The measure is projected to save $1 million over five years in employee time, transportation costs and bank deposit fees.

Shift from paper to online pay stubs for the Treasury Department's 100,000 employees, which will save $1.5 million annually in postage and employee processing costs.

Although savings generated by the proposals would hardly make a dent in the federal deficit, which will approach $1.3 trillion next year under the White House budget, observers say that's not the point.

By asking employees to submit their ideas for saving money and cutting red tape, the administration is telling employees that they're part of the solution, not the problem, said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense.

"It's not just the amount of money that's saved through the change. It's the attitude of employees about ways to save cash that begets more savings in the future," Ellis said.

Many of the employee-generated ideas included in the budget will help agencies make their operations more eco-friendly while saving money:

The Veterans Affairs and Labor departments said they will shut off their computers when not in use, which will save more than $33 million combined between now and 2014.

The Education Department will take three steps proposed by its employees: Expand the use of videoconferencing instead of travel, print documents using both sides of the paper and put more documents online to reduce the number of Freedom of Information Act requests.

The actions have a combined savings of nearly $2 million over five years.

The Energy Department said it will increase the use of videoconferencing to cut down on business travel, which will save $10 million over five years and reduce the department's greenhouse gas emissions.

The budget also includes some cost-saving measures proposed by agencies in response to a December challenge from Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag.

The FBI, for instance, said it will purchase fewer light-duty sedans next year, shaving its fleet acquisition budget by 7 percent. The agency will replace about 1,250 older vehicles but not increase the overall size of its fleet.

Reaching out to employees for cost-savings ideas is nothing new. During the Clinton administration, more than 1,200 Hammer Awards were presented to teams of employees across government who streamlined federal programs or work processes.

In 2007, the Transportation Security Administration launched an effort to solicit online input from employees on how to improve the upstart agency.

More than 40 suggestions from the so-called IdeaFactory have been implemented in the past two years, including improvements to airport scanning procedures and changes to personnel policies that have improved job satisfaction, increased retention and improved the quality of work life, the White House says.

But expanding those efforts and making it easier for employees to make suggestions is commendable, said Jennifer Dorn, president of the National Academy of Public Administration.

"It's an important start and, particularly for those 20 or so who made it in the government's budget, it's an encouragement for the next round, to make bigger and even more substantive ideas," she said.

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