The Secret to Cutting Government Waste: Savings by a Thousand Cuts

Turn out the light in the soda machine. Fix the salt-spreader on the snow plow. The best way to save is to ask public employees for their ideas.
Bill Clinton looks on as Al Gore holds up the Report of the National Performance Review at the White House on September 20, 1994. (Joe Marquette/Associated Press)

In 1991, Texas faced a whopping $4.6 billion budget deficit. The legislature asked state Comptroller John Sharp to review the budget to find some face-saving cuts before they raised taxes. Sharp assembled a crack team and not only found a few savings here and there: He found enough to close the entire deficit. And then he kept going.

Over the course of the next decade, Sharp's Texas Performance Review (TPR) saved the state $10 billion and won awards for government innovation from admirers as diverse as Harvard and the Heritage Foundation. Sharp and his colleagues were called to Washington to help advise President Clinton and Vice President Gore on a National Performance Review -- whose most famous image was the $400 hammers at the Pentagon -- which resulted in $106 billion in savings the first year and helped to reduce the federal payroll to its lowest level since the Eisenhower Administration.

TPR staff also advised California's Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on a similar state review. My firm eventually absorbed some former TPR staff and adopted its methodology. We have since conducted similar reviews of individual agencies, local governments, or entire state bureaucracies in about a dozen states. Such reviews routinely identify annually recurring savings totaling roughly 5 percent of total operating spending. (By "annually recurring," I mean that cheap gimmicks and one-time savings like selling the state capitol don't count.)

Let me give a few favorite examples: By unscrewing the tiny light bulb behind the big plastic display that covers almost the entire front of most soda machines -- which serves no purpose but to make the can of Coke look more delicious -- Texas saved about $200,000 a year in energy costs. (There are a lot of soda machines on state property!) Colorado used three different entities to deliver mail on the state office campus, including two government agencies and a private firm (proving that privatization alone isn't always the answer). You could literally stand outside the capitol and photograph three mail trucks following each other around from building to building. And West Virginia had never properly calibrated the salt-spreaders on its snowplows, so that whenever it snowed it was dumping far more salt on the highways than needed. Simply adjusting these devices saved the state about $3 million a year. None of these make a significant dent in structural deficits -- but put together 100 small changes like that and, as the saying goes, pretty soon you're talking real money. It's hard for anyone to be against that (well, except salt companies).

Of course, while such items make for good stories, and can certainly add up, that's not where most savings arise. The biggest item in any review we've conducted is, not surprisingly, fraud -- particularly in health-care programs. The biggest savings are generally achievable in health and human-service programs, in part because, as Willie Sutton said of banks, "that's where the money is." But it's not just entitlement programs beloved of liberals that are inefficient and costly -- prisons and other correctional institutions tend to be money sieves. Worst of all is where these fields intersect: To paraphrase President Kennedy, correctional health services tend to have all the efficiencies of our health system and all the charm of our corrections systems.

So there are many places to look to reduce costs without threatening public services. One cardinal rule: Look for how to do better rather than simply how to cut. Cuts are easy to find -- but they don't necessarily save money. Every state in the country could cut its budget by one-quarter or more overnight by eliminating Medicaid -- but taxpayer subsidies to hospitals for uncompensated care would skyrocket. Reducing governmental costs doesn't necessarily involve doing less; usually, it involves doing better.

The biggest impediment to "doing better" is that those in government -- as well as advocates and critics -- tend to think in terms of programs and functions that can, or might have to be, cut. To most, that's what government consists of. But this view of government -- and of how to trim government budgets -- is reminiscent of an old New Yorker cartoon, in which a father tells his family, gathered around the kitchen table, "Because of the recession, we're going to have to let one of you go." No family, of course, would really approach a tight budget that way, but that's pretty much how most discussions of government cuts proceed -- cutting budget "line items" wholesale.

Many programs should be terminated on the merits -- but that's not where to find waste or inefficiency, which don't have budget line items. Neither do most of the places where you'll find it in government. There is no line item in state budgets for electricity for Coke machines (or, in most cases, for the electric bill, period), or intra-office mail delivery, or purchase of road salt. It's an old adage: What gets measured gets done. And most budgets don't identify, track, and measure wasteful practices. That's why the waste occurs.

Presented by

Eric Schnurer is president of Public Works LLC, a public-policy and management-consulting firm that works with state and local governments across the country. He has served as a gubernatorial chief-of-staff and speechwriter or policy adviser to governors, senators, and presidential candidates.

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