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Debunking the Myth That the Federal Government Can’t be Efficient

Posted By briana On March 10, 2011 @ 9:08 am In Overview | 5 Comments

Written by: Director Robert Groves

We’re trying out some new ideas at the Census Bureau. The motivation for them is simple. We want to get better.

Two things plague large, mature organizations: 1) Quasi-independent subunits not working together, jockeying for resources and influence; and 2) administrative barriers to innovation. These problems in business and industry have inspired many a business school treatise on organizational change.

We’ve started an operational efficiency program at the Census Bureau. We seek proposals for change and innovation from all employees. They send the proposals directly, not through their supervisory chain. My deputy and I read every proposal. The proposal needs to define the problem, propose a solution, and estimate cost savings from the change. If the solution needs some funding to be achieved, we’ll fund it if the savings achieved pay off the funding in three years or less.

The first time we did this, I thought we’d get a handful of proposals. We had over 670 sent in! About 400 of them came from field interviewers, the real front line of the workforce. Some of the ideas were so powerful and simple to implement that we did them without second thoughts. Others competed for common investment funds.

Just to give you a sense of some of the ideas we’ve implemented:

• Because of the observation of a field interviewer, we are purchasing Easy Pass cards and saving over $6 a trip across a bridge in Rhode Island. We’re researching the possibility of using toll passes in other parts of the country to save even more.
• By merely continuing on-board staff hired during the decennial census to process workmen’s compensation claims for our staff, we are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year helping people get back to work sooner.
• By consolidating multiple requests for the same software purchase, we’ve reduced costs by over 80%.
• By allowing data keyers to see their evaluative reports online (instead of printing out each one), we’ve radically reduced paper, toner, and printer usage and given faster feedback to the employee.
• Instead of giving field interviewers quasi-business cards (for which they had to write in their name) that they didn’t value, we’ve just stop doing it, saving all the printing and distribution costs of the cards.
• Based on a field representative’s observation that many of the area codes on telephone numbers used for a survey were out of date, we’re now pre-processing using computer software, fixing them, and saving lots of interviewer hours.

We learned a lot by this process. We have people who want to be as efficient as possible in spending the taxpayer’s money. If you ask them to forward ideas to improve the work processes, they come through. Sometimes big organizations don’t ask.

Change is still difficult to achieve, but when you listen to those running the key processes, innovation toward greater efficiency can be achieved. We all need to work against the normal forces of inertia in big organizations.

We are pleased with what we collectively accomplished. We’ve continued the call for proposals for change.

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