The U.S. Census Bureau: Driving Cost Savings and Operational Efficiency by Leveraging Employee Creativity and Innovation


Image(s) included
Post a comment
Photo of Employees at the U.S. Census Bureau 2015 Innovation Fair
Photo of Employees at the U.S. Census Bureau 2015 Innovation Fair

Guest blog post by Jane Callen, Senior Editor, U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Innovation and Operational Efficiency (IOE) program exemplifies operational excellence. Begun in 2010 by former Census Bureau Director Robert Groves, the program has resulted in nearly $46 million in combined savings and cost avoidance to U.S. taxpayers. The idea behind IOE is to leverage employee creativity and innovation toward cost savings and operational efficiency. As of 2016, the Census Bureau has funded 106 projects based on over 2,100 submissions.

The model for the program is simple: essentially, Census Bureau employees are invited to submit ideas that fit into specific buckets, known as Challenge Areas. Innovation ideas that fall outside of those areas are also welcomed and go into the virtual Census Solution Box (CSB), a digital repository for employee suggestions. Like the Challenge Area submissions, the IOE team carefully considers the CSB ideas to determine feasibility and applicability.

Ultimately, IOE is about Census Bureau employees: their insights based on their unique vantage point in the workplace. Consider the example of programming all of the Census Bureau’s printers to a default setting of two-sided printing. This change has not only resulted in significant savings, it has benefitted the planet.

Other IOE Awardees:

Metadata Structure and Integration--The Census Bureau needed better approaches to using metadata to facilitate data discovery, manipulation and dissemination of data.  This idea leveraged DataWeb—a platform bringing together different datasets and disseminating information for the use—to facilitate the integration of metadata across censuses and surveys, which increased public awareness of the range of Census Bureau products. 

Reducing the Number of Government Issued Vehicles--Prior to the 2011 IOE formal call, the Census Bureau had a fleet of 110 government vehicles that commanded over $600,000 of the agency’s annual budget. An employee suggested streamlining the vehicle booking and utilization process to provide a clearer picture of what vehicles were actually needed to meet demand. As a result, the Census Bureau was able to reduce excess capacity in the fleet and has since reduced its inventory of vehicles across the nation by approximately 55 percent, saving more than $300,000. The implementation team also developed a contract to purchase E-85 ethanol fuel from nearby Andrews Air Force Base in an effort to reduce greenhouse emissions and reduce fossil fuel dependency.

Data Visualization Dissemination--With new consumer expectations and competition providing detailed data sets on the American public, the Census Bureau needs greater focus on data visualizations in products. Solution: Engaging in training, building cross-directorate teams, enhancing managerial support, and pursuing high-value in data visualization in products. As a result we are improving the way we do things and providing better products to the public.

Often the important ideas are not huge, IOE program manager Gabriel Sanchez says. Instead, they are innovations that can be easily implemented -- and make a real difference. “We are always encouraging people to look around the workplace and identify things that could work better,” Sanchez says. He acknowledges that great ideas frequently are borne of frustration. “We really try to encourage employees: look around your workplace, see what is giving you a pain point, and send us an idea for a solution. We guarantee you will get an answer back.” Not only does every employee hear back, they are promised a response within 45 days. That can be a lot of work for the team, but it is necessary to keep the momentum going. Indeed, he says that based on employee surveys, “we have found it’s better to tell people ‘we’re sorry, your idea won’t be implemented’ than for them not to hear back at all.”

Ideas that make it to the executive level of review receive “Smart Cookie” awards. These are announced annually at the Census Bureau’s innovation fair that takes place each summer.

Sanchez and team walk the talk: they too are always thinking about good ideas and ways to innovate. For example, they have developed a searchable database based on all of the ideas that have been submitted. That way, before someone submits an idea he or she can look to see what has been previously suggested, as well as the disposition of the suggestion. Sanchez points out that even if a submission is not chosen, it still has value. “If 30 people have ideas for ‘fixing’ the telephone system that tells us there is probably a problem with the telephone system. We need to know that,” he says.

 “I believe every employee knows their work best. I really want to hear from them: their ideas for how to improve, how to make today a little bit better than yesterday.”

Related content

Last updated: 2016-07-13 14:20

Bureaus & Offices