Federal workers are in the trenches daily, so they're likely to be the first to spot waste — and to come up with ways to save taxpayer dollars.
That's the theory behind the Obama administration's Securing Americans Value and Efficiency (SAVE) Award, a contest in which federal workers submit ideas to reduce costs. The prize: a meeting with the president in the Oval Office to present the money-saving idea.
Matt Ritsko, a financial manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, won last year with a suggestion to create a "library" for unused tools and materials that could be checked out like books.
The 29-year-old Crofton man says he came up with the idea while looking with colleagues for ways to improve efficiencies in the flight projects area, which builds spacecraft from the ground up.
Many of the specialized tools and parts used in these projects have a limited shelf life. When a project is completed, the tools, parts and equipment left over aren't tracked or stored in a central location. This can lead to duplicate purchases later.
The deadline to submit SAVE Award ideas for this year was last month.
"When it first came out, we called it a budget gimmick we liked," said Marc Goldwein, senior policy director with the bipartisan non-profit Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "Ordinarily, all the gimmicks they try to do avoid the deficit. This one is kind of a gimmick to get people involved."
Federal workers have submitted more than 85,000 ideas since the Office of Management and Budget launched the SAVE AWARD in 2009. It's unclear exactly how much savings these suggestions have yielded.
A spokeswoman for OMB said the program is on track to save over $200 million by the end of the year.
The president's 2013 budget credits 27 SAVE ideas with cutting administrative costs. The five-year savings from SAVE recommendations in the budget appear to be roughly $188 million.
Ritsko's winning idea is expected to save about $3.5 million over five years.
The SAVE Award will not significantly help to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion, the figure needed to put the national debt on a downward path, Goldwein said.
Still, he said, the program has stopped some waste. And at a time when the political parties are so polarized, Goldwein said the SAVE program is likely one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on.
"Who can oppose asking the people who are there every day to find ways to be more efficient about what they are doing?" he asked.
Federal workers are invited to make suggestions, which are posted online, with space for comments. The OMB and government agencies whittle the suggestions down to four finalists, and the public gets to vote for their favorite.
More than 48,000 votes were cast last year. Ritsko's lending library of tools and materials received more than 19,000.
Work is under way to get the library up and running as soon as next year.
"Ideally, over time it could be expanded," Ritsko said. "A concept like this could be done at other NASA facilities and perhaps interlinked together."
Goldwein said some suggestions are better than others, and certain ideas would actually cost more money if adopted.
Among this year's crop of entries: Encouraging agencies to go paperless, privatizing the mail, selling museum art now sitting in storage, eliminating trees that need trimming from government parking lots and giving state and federal workers Fridays off to cut down on fuel consumption and pollutants.
One worker suggested ending early retirement benefits for federal lawmakers, while eliminating retirement pay for members of Congress convicted of a felony.
The penny, which costs more to produce than it's worth, was targeted more than once. A worker advised turning it into a two-cent coin instead.
That last idea elicited skepticism from one online commenter: "I wouldn't bother bending over for one of those either."
Another worker suggested making gambling illegal in America, but didn't say how that would save money. A commenter noted: "Wall Street investing is gambling, would you make that illegal too?"
Some employees want a cash reward if their agencies come under budget or their SAVE ideas are adopted.
Ritsko said he's happy with the way the program works now. After he won, he met face-to-face with some of NASA's top people.
"It's not everyday you're able to interact with very interesting people who have done a variety of great things for the country and get to hear some war stories," he said.
And in January, he had about 15 minutes in the Oval Office to brief the president on his idea — "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said
Indeed, Ritsko said he has no intention of submitting another waste-cutting idea. He said he wants to let others have a shot.
"I had my time," he said. "That said, if I come up with a good idea, who knows?"
Some SAVE suggestions
•Allow veterans discharged from VA hospitals to take their leftover medication with them instead of throwing it away.
•Save printing and postage by allowing federal employees to opt-in for paper copies of the Federal Register, which is also available online, rather than receive them automatically.
•Allow Social Security beneficiaries to make appointments online instead of over the phone.
•Have labs mail empty containers to food inspectors via regular mail instead of next-day service.
•Stop printing and mailing the Social Security employee magazine, which is available online.
Sources: Office of Management and Budget, individual agenciesCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun