LINCOLN — A program aimed at making Nebraska state government more efficient has been fading away in recent years.
The Nebraska Employee Suggestion Award System recognizes state employees for money-saving and productivity-boosting suggestions.
Employees can get money — up to $5,000 — or certificates of appreciation.
But the number of employees getting rewarded for their ideas has dropped off, for the most part, since 2004.
Over the past two years, the number of suggestions being offered has plummeted, as well.
Union leaders blame Gov. Dave Heineman's administration, which took office in 2005.
Julie Dake Abel, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said the current administration does not seem to respect workers or value their ideas.
“There's been quite a few people that have put in suggestions, and they don't go anywhere,” she said.
But State Personnel Director Ruth Jones said managers have good rapport with employees and often receive ideas and suggestions from employees directly rather than through the formal suggestion system.
Still, she said, the system is valuable to the state and she has been impressed with the number of good ideas employees have brought forward.
“The suggestion system does cause some productive dialogue,” Jones said. “Programs such as this, that bring suggestions for improvement, are worthwhile.”
Nebraska lawmakers created the state employee suggestion system with legislation passed in 1993. The bill revived a previous suggestion system that had been defunct for 12 years.
The current program began operating in 1995.
Under the program, employees submit their suggestions anonymously to the Personnel Office. Ideas found acceptable are forwarded to the appropriate agency for review.
Dake Abel said the system allows suggestions to be considered on their own merit rather than because of the person making the suggestion. It also allows ideas to come out that otherwise might get lost within the layers of bureaucracy in an agency.
An agency award committee evaluates each suggestion and recommends whether to adopt it and approve an award. The Suggestion Award Board makes the final decision about awards.
Employees can get as much as 10 percent of the projected savings from their idea, up to $5,000.
A report submitted to the Legislature this fall said 806 suggestions had been received from 1995 through the beginning of August. Of those, 552 were sent on for agency review.
A total of 125 ideas have been approved for an award, including one approved by the Suggestion Award Board in October.
That averages out to nearly seven awards annually, but the bulk of them were given in the early years of the program.
The largest — a $5,000 award — went to Lynda Brown, a Department of Health and Human Services employee, for suggesting a streamlined hearing process for disqualifying welfare applicants.
Glenn Elwell, while working for the Nebraska State Patrol, received $3,126.90 for suggesting Nebraska could get new or used emergency breathing masks at no cost from states that were upgrading their equipment.
In most years since 2005, only a couple of awards have been given. Even in 2008, when the number of suggestions rose as the state headed into a budget crunch and policymakers were looking for ways to save money, only a handful were recognized with an award.
State Sen. Heath Mello, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said he is looking into why the state suggestion system is not better used.
“Getting ideas and feedback from front-line state workers is a great way to reduce costs,” Mello said.
He also wants to find out why state agencies frequently don't implement employee suggestions they rate worthy of recognition.
Jones said agencies may have reasons not to implement a suggestion but can approve a certificate of appreciation anyway, to encourage more ideas.
State Auditor Mike Foley said the Suggestion Award Board sometimes decides against giving an award because the suggested change is something an agency should already have been doing based on law or policy.
Foley sits on the board as state auditor, along with the state personnel director, state administrative services director and three members of the state employees union.
He said he believes the program has value and hopes it can be promoted more to encourage greater participation.
The Personnel Office is working to make sure information about the program is part of the computerized orientation for new employees, Jones said.
She expressed confidence that improved marketing of the program will encourage more ideas in the future.
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