WASHINGTON – Baltimore County’s nationally recognized “gainsharing” program was paraded before a congressional subcommittee Wednesday that is looking at ways to make government more efficient.
The pay-for-performance program for county workers rewards employees who develop and implement cost-saving projects, by taking as much as half of the savings from their suggestions and returning it to their departments as bonuses.
Since its start in 1996, gainsharing has saved more than $1.4 million for Baltimore County, said Antony Sharbaugh, the county’s director of human resources. He said the program, which began with a small group of laborers, has spread to cover more than 1,500 employees in five county departments.
Baltimore County was the only county to testify Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, which also heard about government reform programs by Minnesota and Illinois.
Sharbaugh said the program was born of necessity: A growing county population was putting increased demands on a government with flat tax revenues.
“Compounding the problem, some employees had been recently laid off, the morale of the remaining employees was low and many of the best and brightest had jumped ship for fear of losing their positions down the road,” Sharbaugh said.
The strategy calls for workers to participate in management and to accept responsibility for major reforms. In exchange, the employees get to split any savings with the county, up to $5,000 per worker.
For example, kitchen workers from the Bureau of Corrections managed to save $221,000 for a two-year period by switching to a more-efficient way of feeding prisoners, using cheaper substitutes and more accurately allotting meals. The 13 corrections employees were rewarded with checks for $5,000 during the program’s first year and $2,500 the second year.
The program has faced its share of hurdles.
“The biggest obstacle came from the middlemen who were not willing to share their institutional knowledge and authority,” said Sharbaugh. “Frontline employees sharing in their management responsibilities did threaten their position.”
After working with the middle managers, he said, they are “adapting to the program and are encouraged by the positive results that are cropping up around them.”
Union representatives said they were also apprehensive. James Clarke, president of the Federation of Public Employees in Baltimore County, said workers were afraid middle managers might try to “sabotage operations.”
“But soon we realized that it worked well for us,” said Clarke, who represents 1,500 county employees in more than 180 job classifications. “The people feel happy and motivated now that they have a voice.
“The positive impact that this program has had just proves that it’s the county employees who know how to do their job best,” he said.
Sharbaugh said the program has become a model, with counties like Fairfax in Virginia and Sacramento in California showing “great interest” in gainsharing.
The program has also been picked as one of 25 semifinalists for the $100,000 Innovations in American Government award instituted by the Ford Foundation and administered by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University with the council for Excellence in Government. The winner will be decided in late October.
Gail C. Christopher, executive director of Innovations in American Government, called gainsharing “a unique program, as it deals with civil employees, which can be very hard. It sure has a good shot at winning the award.”