VA to implement SAVE award winner’s idea over the next year

White House now eyes good ideas from industry. OMB also tells agencies to apply other contest suggestions within their agencies, including electronic pay stubs....

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor

The Veterans Affairs Department is wasting little time in implementing Nancy Fichtner’s idea to save money.

The fiscal program support clerk at the VA hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., won the first annual Securing Americans Value and Efficiency (SAVE) Award. She received the most votes for her suggestion to let veterans take home the medication they receive at the VA hospital instead of throwing it away.

Fichtner was one of four finalists chosen out of more than 38,000 submissions by the Office of Management and Budget and the White House earlier this month. The public voted for the best idea.

VA expects to run four-to-six pilots starting in the spring and lasting about six months, says Katie Roberts, an agency spokeswoman.

And the Office of Management and Budget is requiring agencies to implement some of the other 37,000-plus ideas as well.

“We’ve already begun to implement a host of suggestions made through the SAVE contest,” says President Obama during the press conference at the White House after he met with Fichtner. “While promoting electronic pay stubs or scheduling social security appointments online or repurposing unused government supplies may not be the most glamorous reforms in history, when taken together these small changes add up. They add up to a transformation of how government works.”

To that end, OMB director Peter Orszag issued a memo late Monday night asking agencies to make electronic pay stubs the default for all employees. Orszag also wants agencies to do a better job in letting their employees know they don’t have to take transit benefits if they don’t need them and the agency can save money by getting that unused money back from Metro.

“Employees currently have the ability to opt in to receive electronic paystubs, but only 64 percent of Federal employees are taking advantage of this option,” Orszag writes. “OMB is working with each payroll system to assess the necessary steps needed to implement a system in which employees opt out if they wish not to receive their paystubs electronically. By making electronic statements the default option while continuing to allow opt out, OMB hopes to increase the percentage of federal employees who use this convenient, lost-cost approach.”

Orszag also wants agencies to evaluate existing policies and practices to assess compliance with existing administration priorities, such as using technology to improve citizen’s access to government services, improving energy and water efficiency of federal buildings, making sure federal vehicles are energy efficient and reusing government supplies.

“Several employees suggested the creation of a governmentwide site modeled after ‘Craig’s List,” Orszag wrote. “This model exists on a governmentwide basis for Property Act excess, and the concept should be used within individual departments and offices as well. Presently, agencies identify unneeded personal property through the excess and surplus process, and property available for transfer and use by other federal agencies is posted on a common, governmentwide site – This site also allows agencies to post requests for assets that they are seeking.”

Orszag is requiring the General Services Administration to conduct random spot checks on agency buildings to see how efficient they are, and the results will be posted on the agency’s Web site.

Additionally, Obama says the White House will host a meeting Jan. 14 with industry to focus on closing the gap between the private sector and the federal government in using technology to drive productivity and improve service quality.

As for VA, it plans to begin implementation in March with the pilots in rural and urban hospitals, Roberts says. Then VA will take the idea systemwide by September with full implementation by 2011.

Roberts says an initial estimate of how much money VA could save is $3.8 million. But she says that is a conservative estimate and VA expects the savings to be much higher.

“We want to test and work through the bugs over the six-month pilots,” she says.

Fichtner presented her idea to President Obama Monday.

“He came up to me and put his arm around me just like a regular person would,” Fichtner says after the meeting. “He asked me about my family and about hunting in Colorado. It was an honor to meet him.”

Fichtner almost didn’t make it to her visit with the President. The snow storm forced her plane to land in Philadelphia, and then Fichtner and her family had to take a train to Washington.

“Having met with Nancy a few minutes ago, I can tell you Nancy means business,” the President says. “She is single working mom, she’s a clerk with the VA, she’s an artist, an outdoorswoman and she is an avid hunter. Somewhere in the Western United States, there is an elk breathing a sigh of relief because Nancy is here instead of where she would have been, hunting with her kids.”

Fichtner hopes her idea spurs her colleagues and friends across the government.

“You can make a difference,” she says. “The power of one is really strong. We can do all kinds of stuff if just put our minds to it and submit the ideas and take a look at what we can do.”

(Copyright 2009 by All Rights Reserved.)

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