March 3, 2010
The general budget freeze President Obama proposed in February put penny pinchers in vogue. With mandatory spending programs, net interest on the debt and dampened tax revenues squeezing discretionary accounts, federal managers now know that they will face mostly stagnant budgets for some years to come. That means they will have to squeeze efficiency out of the dollars they already have to maintain quality services.
Over the years, penny pinchers across government have found numerous ways to trim the fat from their office budgets and avoid being asked to cut from the bone. Savings often are hiding out in agency operations that have not been adequately scrutinized. The key is to know where to look. Here are four targets that managers have found to save thousands, hundreds of thousands -- even millions -- of dollars that can be redirected to support agencies' central missions.
Buy in bulk. Equipment and supplies is an obvious place to find savings. Rather than deny employees staples or paper clips, pool your buying power with other offices or agencies to get better prices on bulk purchases. The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments combined their purchases of pharmaceuticals for their medical facilities and saved millions of dollars. In another instance, agencies that relied on maps got together on a joint contract for buying satellite data, again saving millions.
Manage the mail. If your agency has a mail manager, ask for help cutting postage costs.
You might be able to save money using bulk rates rather than first-class rates. You also could find ways to minimize the size or weight of mailings to reduce costs. Even better, avoid mail entirely by signing up your customers, clients or stakeholders for e-mail delivery.
Print less. During his tenure as Office of Management and Budget director in the first few years of this decade, Mitch Daniels got in a major fight with the Government Printing Office, which agencies are legally required to use for many printing jobs.
Daniels tried to end the monopoly, GPO fought back, and in the end they agreed to a compromise aimed at reducing agencies' printing costs. As this decade begins, people are increasingly uninterested in reading government documents on paper. They'd much rather have them in electronic form. That goes for lots of traditionally printed products such as employee newsletters. Switching to electronic delivery not only saves agencies money, it also caters to their audiences' changing preferences.
Travel. Technology has supposedly reduced the need for travel, since more meetings and training sessions can be conducted via teleconference and videoconference. But unlike the growing desire for electronic document delivery, people still seem to prefer to meet in person for many purposes, especially training. And much government travel is unavoidable, whether for law enforcement or auditing or regulatory purposes. The National Labor Relations Board found that face-to-face witness interviews were more effective than videoconferencing. Rather than invest in expensive and unproven technologies, you might be better off finding ways to cut airline, hotel and other travel expenses but still send employees to interact directly with the people your agency deals with.
As the federal budget crunch deepens in coming years, someone is going to start cutting. It could be Congress. It could be the Office of Management and Budget. It could be agency headquarters staff.
Operational-level managers who themselves do some cutting can help make sure that the bone doesn't get sliced with the fat.
Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.
March 3, 2010