Building a Culture of Efficiency in Government

Small savings can add up to real money--and better services.
by | March 20, 2013

Public officials committed to balancing their budgets in these difficult times understand that they have only so much political capital to deploy. They often concentrate exclusively on big cuts and larger structural changes, brushing off the opportunities for small savings that seem to be merely distractions.

Yet perhaps what we once thought of as trade-offs -- "I can only do so much, so let's concentrate on the big items" -- is really a false choice. The right answer incorporates both: completely rebuilding some program budgets while transforming others through incremental efficiency improvements. Officials who force attention to harvesting small savings develop a culture intolerant of waste at any level, building a consciousness that every dollar spent comes out of someone else's pocket. A culture of efficiency induces changes throughout the governmental entity that not only build up to real money but also increase the likelihood of big ideas emerging from emboldened employees.

Through partnerships and bottom-up initiatives, government can do more with less in ways that might have been impossible to push through without the mandate of lower tax revenues. As these small improvements set a new norm of constant reinvention, they will produce substantial savings and better services, culminating in better, faster, cheaper government.

I recently spoke with Anthony Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., who has been doing exactly this. Rather than accepting tight times as a reason to scale back key services, Foxx is treating it as an opportunity to source innovation from multiple sectors to make his administration more efficient. These fixes aren't fancy, but they are effective and have allowed the city to continue to provide the services expected by its residents.

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Here's just one example: A third-party study found that the city could improve its recycling program by combining bigger receptacles with less frequent pickups to both save money and improve participation. This small change was made, and now the system is working better than before. It's expected to save the city about $40 million over 10 years.

Similarly, other cities have been able to produce significant savings by replacing their downtown trash cans with solar compactors. Philadelphia did this in 2009, saving $900,000 in the first year and repurposing 24 of its 33 downtown waste-pickup employees to a new citywide recycling program. Small efficiencies often offset what otherwise would be service cutbacks. As I've put it in the past, dieting, no matter how difficult, beats amputation as a weight-loss device every time.

Efficiency improvements need not come only from the outside. In Charlotte, city workers provide feedback and proposals for innovation, and the government cultivates a receptive culture that acts on their proposals. Employees doing the job possess valuable insights that can inform and improve processes. I saw this first-hand when I was mayor of Indianapolis, where city workers filling cracks in the road or picking up the trash invariably had usable ideas to improve their routes, trucks or other equipment. In Charlotte, Mayor Foxx has worked hard to promote a culture among managers and leadership to be receptive to these suggestions.

The public also can be a valuable resource for these kinds of improvements. When I was a deputy mayor of New York City, we placed an icon on the city's website asking residents to send us their ideas to improve efficiency. Thousands of suggestions rolled in, many as simple as turning off the escalators in city-owned buildings at night.

Small savings that aggregate into big numbers also can be found through investments in administrative systems. When Houston was facing a budget crunch in 2010, the city decided to do what may have seemed counterintuitive: It invested $12.8 million in a new time-management system for its workforce. Among other advantages, the new system allows for previously impossible analysis of employees' work time, yielding more effective scheduling and avoiding unnecessary and expensive hiring and overtime. I'll be looking more closely in a subsequent column at how Houston is producing savings from this system, but the key is that by providing much better information, along with a culture that encourages supervisors to use that information, the city will produce continuing efficiencies in an area as straightforward as time and attendance.

A government that ignores small savings creates a culture that will miss the big opportunities as well. With a culture of openness to good ideas for efficiency regardless of the scale, coupled with the right data, constant improvement will become the norm rather than the exception.

Ben Weinryb Grohsgal contributed to the research and writing for this column. He is a research assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and a student in the master's in public policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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