7 Revealing Contributions to Waste in Government

Waste in government usually means waste in government spending. Audit reports typically show that public expenditure is lost due to corruption, fraud and waste. We’ll all hear of the procurement breaches or multi-million dollar embezzlements. But have you considered the role public sector employees play in the misuse of government resources?

Waste from Printing

We print documents even if they’re accessible from more than one digital source. Sometimes we print and then make lots of copies. We generate so much paper waste that we now print on recycled paper.

The printed documents ultimately end up in the trash but most go to the file cabinet. For this article, “file cabinet” refers to digital storage media, the actual file cabinet and traditional storage containers.

The File Cabinet

Governments are the largest repositories of data on, for and about their clients and citizens. Technology advances have made it easier for us to collect and analyse data. However, the absence of data collection or sharing standards leads to data redundancy and data that contains errors.

Data retention policies ensure that governments have a chronic unhealthy relationship with paper. To ensure we don’t dispose of the wrong documents before we ought to, we hoard. Whether hard copies or digital, if we can’t dispose of them, they go in the file cabinet.

Eventually, we need storage for the file cabinets. So we use more resources for that extra room, warehouse or more space in the cloud. It also means documents that are out of sight are also out of mind; how do we effectively “archive” paper?

Large Files

We create multimedia content daily. Consequently, large files exist and their storage and distribution become a concern. Well, the storage is “easy” because we use the file cabinet.

Email is our main communication tool. And when we send an email it is replicated to each recipient. That email then remains on the mail server until it is removed.

Using Resources for Personal Purposes

It happens more often than we’d like to believe:

  • charging personal expenses to the organization on business trips
  • installing software licensed to the organization on our personal devices
  • taking home office supplies or other resources
  • using organization credit cards for personal purchases
  • using organization equipment for personal purposes

There is no office-supply-fairy that magically replaces what you take. And there is no way you can justify swimwear as an official purchase because you had a business trip to the Caribbean.


Twenty-first-century electronic devices have apps and features that replace a sizeable number of traditional devices. As such, adding machines or calculators are unnecessary when there are spreadsheets or electronic calculators. Directories are also accessible and searchable online, there’s no need for Rolodexes or that telephone book that had that pedestal at just the right height.

Additionally, the inherent silo culture in government contributes to multiple acquisitions of productivity tools and solutions that meet common needs. These purchases could be better leveraged with proper governance and timely, effective communication.

Showing Up & Staying Late

This is not to say we should avoid going into the office. Some countries have made changes in laws that now make it possible for organizations to offer staff the option to work from home. And if widely adopted; persons working from home a few days of the week cause the organization to spend less on utilities.

As an added bonus, staff will also save on transportation costs. There is also a school of thought that working from home makes you more productive and healthy.

The reasons for going to work when ill vary. However, consider the following:

  1. You are contagious.
  2. You feel better after taking the prescribed drugs. However, you’ll be less productive and still contagious.

Recovering from illness is one of the reasons you may decide to work late just to “catch up’.” Other reasons may include:

  • higher ratings in annual performance evaluations
  • poor planning and time management in general
  • work is too much of a priority
  • you wish to be perceived as conscientious

We use lights and equipment when we work late which drives up utility costs. It also increases the wear on equipment. Perhaps other personnel are unable to leave unless all staff does too. And this could mean spending more from the overtime budget.

Meetings and Live Events

The cost of professional development is one of our largest investments. Training courses, conferences and other live events incur costs for:

  • accommodation
  • incidentals
  • meals
  • registration
  • ticket events
  • travel
  • workshops

If we write justification letters for these events it means a large spend. It also means fewer persons can attend and benefit from these sessions. Then, there are the local events that are held during office hours:

  • retiring, recognition and awards functions
  •  baby showers
  • holiday parties, etc.

Depending on the frequency and number, this can negatively impact the organization’s bottom line and individual deadlines.

Ineffective meetings are a waste of time and resources. Would a better alternative be a report, a call or an email?

Some practical ways to reduce waste

  • Consider virtual conferences and online learning opportunities. However, these should be juxtaposed against time committed to these events.
  • Have the presenter conduct training onsite in order to increase staff exposure.
  • If you must print, use the duplexing option; or only print signature pages for signing.
  • Try these Environmentally Friendly Office Guidelines (PDF).
  • Use digital storage; for example, document management systems or electronic collaboration tools.
  • Reference links in emails instead of attaching large files.

What are some reasons you’ve heard to justify unnecessary printing? Does your agency have a recycling/energy program or a travel and conference policy? What’s your organization’s annual utility spending? What are some of the devices you still use when there is an app for that?

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Erica Harris is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

I’m encouraged by the amount of departments and agencies making the pledge to go paperless, and automating many of these digital communications can reduce lags at each step. Thank you for sharing this and inspiring others across the public sector to reduce waste. Can’t wait to read the next one!

Erica P. Harris

That means a lot, thank you.

Currently, there are a number of initiatives to reduce the high levels of paper stored and produced in some government agencies. From my observations, these initiatives are hampered by, inter alia, lack of clear policy, dated legislation and document creators who are stuck in tradition or simply are not comfortable with the technology. For the ones that have taken up the challenge, project costs increase because of scope-creep.

On the other hand, there are agencies that have had success and would make great case studies. And for some reason, these successes are not being highlighted or used to help others. (Yes, I know, there’s a blog post in there and I need to strategise…)

Gabrielle Wonnell

Great piece! Being in training we really struggle with the printing things. We know that some folks will be fine with electronic resources, but some really want that information put in their hands. We are exploring ways to address this now.

Erica P. Harris

Appreciated. I have been working to have our trainers use a course management system for training and other learning presentations. There is still little trust in the technology and they still print large volumes of handouts. By handouts, I mean copies of the slides with notes pages. There is a slight win where for conferences and large events, participants receive electronic copies of the presentations. However, there is an added cost because CDs and thumb drives are purchased to aid this type of distribution.

The way I see it. We need to find an efficient electronic means to distribute and make it policy. Then those who prefer the information in their hands can print to their hearts’ content and at their own expense.