Phoenix has been able to save close to $6 million over the past two years just by listening to employee ideas.

The city has made an effort to revamp its Employee Suggestion Program in the past few years to encourage employees to submit ideas for saving money by giving out financial rewards. While the program has been around for several years, more recent changes, like an internal website with details of the program and a new branding effort, have encouraged submitted suggestions to go from 92 during the 2007-08 fiscal year to 138 in 2008-09 and 152 this year, said James May, deputy human resources director.

“Over the last two, probably three, years we’ve made a concerted effort to re-market and re-brand the program, especially as our economic woes grew,” May said. “It’s been very encouraging to get employees to submit ideas of all types.” 

Those economic woes initially included an expected two-year general fund shortfall of $241.4 million through June 2011, which was reduced to a $64 million shortfall after the city negotiated budget and wage cuts. 

But while $6 million is a fraction of that $64 million the City Council had to cut, May says the Employee Suggestion Program does make a difference both in fiscal responsibility and employee morale.

“We’ve started to feature (employees whose suggestions are accepted) in our City Connection and employee newsletters. And every other month or so, we’ll select a suggestion that received an award and recognize them at a City Council meeting,” May said. “That motivates other employees who say, ‘I need to submit my suggestions.’”

And that, in turn, will lead to more savings and recognitions.

Ahwatukee Foothills residents may have noticed some of those suggestions in action in their part of the city.

For instance, reducing the number of days drivers with the Meals on Wheels program are delivering meals saved around $185,300. Meals on Wheels drivers now deliver food to the homebound four days instead of five but deliver multiple meals that can be frozen and saved for later on certain days.

A program to cover certain signs prone to vandalism with plexiglass, which makes them easier to clean, saved the city approximately $28,000. Replacing mutt mitts dispensers at parks containing plastic gloves for pet owners to pick up after their dogs with dispensers that instead utilize used grocery bags saved about $60,000.

Ed Miller, a foreman for the city, was the person who submitted the idea to replace the mutt mitts dispensers about two years ago. Miller said the financial reward wasn’t as important to him as the idea of reducing wasteful spending.

“Spending 7 cents apiece per mutt mitt always bothered me,” Miller said. “I just wanted to do away with the wasteful spending of taxpayer money on something as trivial as a mutt mitt.”

Miller manufactured his own bag dispensers out of PVC, which he said were sturdier than the metal containers the city used to place in parks. The new dispensers were first installed in north Phoenix about two years ago and have since spread all over the city.

Not every idea is accepted or rewarded with cash. Heads of departments are less likely to get awards than people lower in the chain, for instance, and employees aren’t generally eligible for rewards if their suggestion is something they could have changed over the course of their regular duties, May said.

Each suggestion is reviewed by a committee, which can grant rewards up to 10 percent of the first year’s savings, maxing out at $3,500. The city gave $13,150 in awards that saved a bit more than $325,220 this year, and $36,109 for suggestions that saved $5.5 million last year.

It’s gratifying to see employees looking at the city as a whole instead of only their department and make suggestions that improve the way the city is run, May said.

“It’s really a matter of pride,” May said. “I think employees are always on the lookout to improve how the work is done and improve our ability to provide quality services to the public.”

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