Yesterday, when I wrote about the finalists for this year’s SAVE Awards, in which the Obama administration recognizes federal employees for ideas to improve the efficiency of federal operations, an erstwhile colleague of mine weighed in on Twitter: “Frankly, these seem like things that should have been fixed years ago,” she wrote.
I wish I could say I thought she was wrong. But look at the finalists’ ideas:
- Allow veterans to track the delivery of mailed prescription medications online using the VA’s web-based portal.
- Require the State Department to first use email (as opposed to regular U.S. mail) to request additional information from passport applicants if necessary.
- Mandate that comparable certifications of employees be transferable across federal agencies.
- Set up a secure website to allow Customs and Border Protection officers and agriculture specialists to collect payments by credit card at land ports of entry.
All of these are worthy suggestions, and it would be hard to argue that they shouldn’t simply be implemented immediately. (Using email to correspond with applicants? That’s a cutting-edge notion, circa 1995.) But that just begs the question why these proposals haven’t already been put in place. It’s something of a sad commentary on the state of the federal government that it apparently takes action at the highest levels to implement common-sense measures like this.
I know that’s not entirely true, and that unsung efforts to implement ideas along these lines occur every day in government without attracting a lot of attention. Still, at this point, the SAVE Awards have two problems:
- They’re small potatoes. In an era when the Air Force is buying $600 million worth of aircraft it doesn’t really want, and then almost immediately mothballing the planes, the idea of letting employees transfer training certifications if they happen to switch agencies seems almost quaint.
- They have a tendency to make it seem like government is hopelessly behind the times. Early in the Obama administration (as in any administration), it made sense to highlight inefficient practices that needed fixing, to focus attention on reforms. But at this point, such stories mostly serve to send the message that government remains tethered to outdated policies and procedures. This, in turn, tends to reinforce the notion that agencies can’t do anything right.
Maybe it’s time for the administration to start declaring victory, and focus more on disseminating stories of impressive accomplishments by federal employees and organizations. That might even move the needle a little on the public’s overall view of government.