Employees drive USDA culture change that leads to $1.4B in savings

The Agriculture Department saved more than a $1 billion over the last three years by acting more like one organization.

But maybe more importantly, the Blueprint for Stronger Service initiative initiated a culture change among USDA employees.

Secretary Tom Vilsack said Agriculture Department employees recognized that it was in their best interest to understand, suggest and make real the efficiency initiatives.

“We recognized revenues were going to get a little tight, that our operating budget was going to be squeezed by our friends in Congress and so we looked for ways we could avoid unnecessary layoffs and disruption in the services that people rely on at USDA,” Vilsack said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “I challenged our team at USDA to look for ways we could do a better job with the resources we had. The employee stepped with a number of suggestions and ideas, focused on travel, space, vehicle maintenance and process improvements. Bottom line, $1.4 billion in savings has been realized and we are not finished yet.”

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Vilsack said the Blueprint for Stronger Service initiative, which began in 2012, will continue in 2016 with a goal of saving another $100 million through strategic sourcing.

He said USDA is going from buying individually to buying as an organization.

“In the past, what we were able to do is in a particular mission area if they had several different agencies in that mission area, they would collaborate on purchases of IT,” Vilsack said. “They would collaborate on purchases of paper or pencils or supplies. Now we are basically saying, ‘let’s collaborate throughout the entire USDA. Let’s make sure our research people are collaborating with our Farm Service Agency people who are collaborating with our Rural Development people in offices across the United States to do this bulk purchasing. That’s a way of identifying potential savings.”

Additionally, Agriculture is looking across the government to piggyback on large dollar buys for things such as vehicles.

Vilsack said USDA is talking with the General Services Administration or the Defense Department to buy automobiles at the same time to increase their bulk discount.

“We are keeping a chart and keeping a count on the savings and the goal is to get to $100 million in the next year or so,” he said.

A personal goal of the secretary

Vilsack said USDA’s efforts to save money and become more efficient have struck a chord with others in government.

He gave a presentation at the President’s Management Council meeting and several agencies have followed up on what they were doing.

“It has to come from the top. There has to be some acknowledgement, recognition and buy-in by the folks at the top and a communication to folks throughout the department that the secretary and the President are personally vested in this,” Vilsack said. “It’s not something that has been delegated. It’s not something in a memo or a directive that everyone is expected to follow up on with no additional follow-up by the person at the time. It has to be something secretaries take personally and are engaged in personally.”

He said another important factor agencies need to keep in mind is the need to identify common goods and services whether it’s pencils, toilet paper or many other items.

“It’s not easy. It does require some flexibility on the part of folks, but if people are willing to be open to that idea there is a tremendous amount of savings that can occur,” Vilsack said. “This is also sparking a sense of creativity in the workforce, which is sometimes we are challenged as leaders. We need to make sure people understand we trust their creativity. We encourage it. We empower them. Basically saying, ‘here is the problem, help us solve it.’ You are essentially saying ‘I have the trust and faith in you that you can come up with a creative solution that will not result in declining service or doing things in a less timely way, but you’re actually figure out how to do more with less. You will figure out how to do a better job with less, a more timely job with less and have confidence that people will actually get it done and they are.'”

Over the first three years, the department says it found savings in several back office areas:

  • Agencies consolidated and right-sized offices, including within Washington achieving more than $25.2 million in savings or avoidance.
  • USDA achieved $135 million in efficiencies by updating agreements for IT support and services, centralizing data servers, consolidating cell phone services and ensuring only the IT equipment necessary to get the job done is purchased.
  • Through workforce restructuring, the agency saved more than $142 million through the use of Early Retirement and Voluntary Separation authorities.
  • Cutting back on travel, in addition to improving the processes for booking travel when necessary, has provided more than $400.3 million in savings or cost avoidance.
  • Through the increase of telework, the department realized $18 million of cost avoidance in transit subsidies to employees.

Any time an agency talks about cost savings or cost avoidance, the question comes up whether the organization found real money that it could put toward mission needs, or just spent less money on the same products or services.

Vilsack said a substantial percentage of money was saved, and it’s reflected in the fact that the USDA operating budget is less today than it was in 2009 when he became secretary.

USDA’s discretionary budget has ranged between $23-to-$24 billion over the last four fiscal years, and President Barack Obama requested $25 billion in 2016.

“We’ve essentially been able to expand our activities at USDA, our workforce is a little bit smaller than it was when I came into office so these savings that have been identified have allowed us to continue to do the work that is required to be done without having to go back and say, ‘we now have to do less.’ We’re actually doing more with less because we’ve been smart with how we’ve used our resources,” Vilsack said.

Employee buy-in

Vilsack said the reason why USDA found so much success in the Blueprint for Stronger Service initiative was two-fold.

First, he oversaw the implementation of the program.

“I meet every other week with Chris Nelson, who’s a career staff person from the department of management, and he basically brings me up to date on where we are with strategic sourcing, where we are with space utilization, where we are with shared services centers of excellence, and he knows he’s reporting to me every two weeks and the people he works with on this initiative knows he’s reporting to me every two weeks,” Vilsack said.

The second reason for the success of the program is the buy-in from employees.

“I think more importantly it’s a recognition on the part of the folks who work here at USDA it’s in their long-term best interest to do this. If we can avoid forced layoffs, if we can avoid furloughs and if we can avoid the disruption that occurs when you do that, then everyone wins, everyone feels better about the job and everyone feels better about the job they were doing,” Vilsack said. “I think there was an understanding and an appreciation that this wasn’t just doing it for the sake of doing it or just because it was the flavor of the month. This was an effort to try to really change the culture within USDA so folks understood it’s within their best interest to do this. Folks have really gravitated to that notion, and we’ve coupled this with process improvement. We said, ‘look there are probably things that we are asking you folks to do that you know are not necessary to do, so can we save you time? Can we save you money? Can we save you grief and frustration by streamlining the processes, and if so help us figure out how best to do that.’ People have been very willing to come up with very significant and very specific process improvement plans.”

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