A Test of Leadership

Employee suggestion programs put managers’ reputations on the line.

Last August, President Obama announced an "innovation competition" at the Veterans Benefits Administration. He challenged employees to come up with ideas to cut applications backlogs, slash wait times for decisions and get benefits to veterans faster.

Clearly, the agency's employees have ideas. They submitted 3,000 of them.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in February announced 10 winners whose ideas will be implemented. Well, actually only five will be implemented in the short term. The other five have been "identified for future implementation." Translation: if VA finds some money to fund the efforts, then it will follow up.

The less costly ideas slated for immediate action include a proposal from one regional office to align employee standards with departmental goals and another to establish an expedited claims process for veterans whose service-related disabilities have gotten worse.

Both are worthwhile ideas, as are the other three that will be implemented immediately and the five that could, some day, be acted upon.

But what about the other 2,990 suggestions? Employees throughout VBA took the time to submit proposals to improve operations. Some of them probably were not great ideas. But many of them probably were. Will they be ignored?

Leaving employees' good ideas for improving operations to gather dust in a suggestion box won't do much to boost morale. Indeed, it will increase cynicism among employees that managers' requests for input amounted to little more than gimmicks.

That cynicism will extend to the customers of the agency -- veterans -- if time goes by and they see the same old-same old: extensive backlogs, long waiting periods and delayed benefits. The five ideas that are going to be implemented might improve service for some veterans, but none of the ideas represents sweeping, fundamental change that will improve service dramatically for most veterans.

Employee suggestion programs like VBA's innovation competition sometimes are seen as a test of rank-and-file workers' ability to come up with great ideas. The truth is employee suggestion programs are also a test of managers' ability and willingness to follow through on their promises. Too often, managers fail that test.

Good ideas for improving operations often cost money that organizations don't have. Others don't cost much money but require a change in operations that organizational leaders are unwilling to make. A few ideas are controversial, with some leaders supporting them and others adamantly opposed.

Once managers have asked for their employees' ideas they should have an honest discussion with those employees about the barriers to implementation. Leaving proposals on the shelf is a failure of leadership. If managers know that funding and other barriers will prevent them from making the most of employee suggestions, then perhaps they shouldn't seek them in the first place.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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