Saving the goverment a million here, a million there and more

If you want ideas on how to save money, ask the people who spend it.

That’s what President Obama did when he began the SAVE Awards two years ago.

SAVE is one of those terms that sounds like someone came up with a smart acronym, then searched for words to fit it. It stands for Securing Americans’ Value and Efficiency — a bureaucratic mouthful. The shorter version also is appropriate, because federal employees recommended more than 18,000 ways Uncle Sam can save money through the SAVE program. About 20 were incorporated into Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal 2012. The Office of Management and Budget expects the ideas to save $867.5 million through 2015.

Trudy Givens, a Bureau of Prisons employee from Portage, Wis., submitted the winning suggestion. Like many of the other ideas, Givens’s suggestion is so simple, yet so effective, you wonder why Sam didn’t think of it earlier.

Her idea: Send the Federal Register — a daily compendium of government regulations and notices — to federal employees online, rather than by snail mail, with an estimated savings of $16 million through 2015.

“In 2010, there were more than 4,700 subscriptions across the entire Federal Government. Based on Government Printing Office estimates, this proposed reduction would save taxpayers up to $4 million (annually) in postage and printing costs,” according to the budget proposal.

I wanted to speak with Givens but couldn’t reach her. She explained how she developed her suggestion in a White House video: “The Federal Register is all online now. It’s easily accessible to look things up. By the time we get the hard copy we’ve already researched what we need to see.”

Unfortunately, Givens, a business administrator at the Federal Correctional Institution in Oxford, Wis., won’t get a cut of the millions her idea will save. But she did have an Oval Office meeting with the president, who signed a certificate honoring her.

“Your mom, she just has common sense,” Obama told Givens’s 12-year-old daughter, Jessica, who was with her mom and dad, Lance Givens, at the White House. Trudy and Lance are 19-year veterans of the Bureau of Prisons.

Even more important than the winning idea “is the change of culture,” Jeff Zients, the president’s chief performance officer, said on the video. Obama’s meeting with Givens “sends a real signal to the federal workforce that the president believes that the best ideas for improving efficiency, saving money, making the government more effective exists on the front line. And that culture change, where there’s a recognition that’s where the best ideas are, is the most sustainable way to improve government service.”

The Internet is going to be a big part of that. In addition to Givens’s idea, two of the other four finalists also suggested using the Web to increase efficiency and save money.

Paul Behe, a paralegal specialist for the Homeland Security Department in Cleveland, suggested advertising property seized by Customs and Border Protection online instead of in newspapers. That’s not good for the ailing newspaper industry, but the OMB pegs the government savings through 2015 at $5 million.

“After having processed the advertising for the Cleveland Port Office, I thought there had to be a more efficient way to comply with the statutes,” which require print advertising, Behe said by e-mail. “We used to process advertising for the Department of Justice and when I stopped seeing their advertising requests, I contacted the local offices and found that they were advertising online.”

Thomas Koenning, of Littleton, Colo., works for the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) Information Technology Center and suggested requiring mining companies to use online reporting forms.

“Although mine operators and contractors are required by regulation to file quarterly data with MSHA, the agency is not required to mail the multi-part forms each quarter,” said Koenning via e-mail. “The forms are mailed as a courtesy.”

Estimated savings, $302,000 by 2015.

The other finalist was Marjorie Cook, a Gobles, Mich., food inspector with the Agriculture Department. Labs send empty containers, that once contained samples, to the department using overnight delivery. Cook suggested saving money by having the empties returned by regular ground delivery. That will save more than $1 million through 2015, according to the budget plan.

A million here, a million there — it adds up.

“It’s really encouraging that Washington is, you know, requesting and implementing some of these ideas,” Givens said, “because what we see everyday isn’t something that people in Washington are seeing.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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