Obama’s Federal Suggestion Box

by Brian M. Carney & Isaac Getz

MAY 1, 2009

President Barack Obama is proposing what amounts to a giant suggestion box for government workers: “We’ll establish a process through which every government worker can submit their ideas for how their agency can save money and perform better,” he said in his Saturday address to the nation. He described the idea as a “bottom-up” effort to “make your government more efficient and effective.” The president’s intention is admirable, and he’s right to say that “Americans across the country know that the best ideas often come from workers — not just management.” But American workers also know that even in the private sector, management often does little to implement their ideas. If the president really wants to take government workers’ ideas seriously, he should know that there’s a lot more to it than setting up an email address and telling workers to fire away. There are good reasons the suggestion boxes at most companies collect more chewed-up gum and recommendations to “fire my boss” than valuable ideas. Workers know that the bureaucracy will strangle even good ideas with “suggestion-review committees” and rules on who is eligible to offer ideas, what kind of ideas will be considered, and how to decide what constitutes a “good” idea. It doesn’t have to be this way: Toyota’s plants in Georgetown, Ky., and Fremont, Calif., benefit from a continuous flow of their employees’ ideas. But copying this model isn’t easy: GM co-owns the NUMMI plant in Fremont and has tried to emulate its culture — with little success, as the administration is well-aware.

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