A Suggestion Box Is Not Enough

A recent Buffalo News article highlighted the fact that no one has been checking employee suggestion boxes for the Town of Amherst, NY. As stated in the article:

At a recent Amherst Town Board work session, Council Member Steven Sanders introduced a resolution clarifying that it’s the supervisor’s responsibility to periodically check the several wooden employee suggestion boxes that dot town hall.

In response, Supervisor Barry Weinstein said that at Sanders’ behest, his staff opened these suggestion boxes “for the first time in years.”

“We thought the clerk was doing it, and the clerk must have thought someone else was doing it, and no one had a key,” Weinstein said.

“Were there suggestions in there for . . . Hal Collier?” asked Council Member Mark Manna, referring to the man who served on the Town Board for 20 years through 1993.

It wasn’t quite that bad. But there were suggestions dating back to Satish Mohan’s days as supervisor. Mohan stepped down in 2009.

It is believed that the workplace suggestion box started with the Japanese in 1721 when the eighth shogun, Yoshimuni Tokugawa…posted the following note: “Make your idea known…. Rewards are given for ideas that are accepted.” In the United States the oldest documented system of formal employee involvement is Eastman Kodak company’s employee suggestion system, established in 1898, according to the IdeasAmerica Association.

A survey developed by OfficeTeam found, Only 38% of working men and women feel their managers are very willing to listen to new ideas and suggestions for improvement“, as reported in USA Today in March of 2001.

Government organizations have a lot of room for improvement in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, yet rarely do elected officials or department heads seek ideas from employees or the public. Sadly the experience in the Town of Amherst of putting up suggestion boxes and then ignoring them is the extent of engaging employees and the public in many government organizations.

Local governments across the country are engaging and encouraging employees to be more innovative in how their departments operate. Some examples that have moved way beyond a suggestion box pointed out by Jim Savara and Karen Thoreson are:

Glendale, Arizona. The Innovate Team was created in 2008 by the city manager who wanted to encourage employees to make innovations in the workplace that would benefit the organization and the community. The group is made up of 25 employees from 17 departments along with subject-matter experts, depending on the topics they are studying. New members are recruited annually. Employees have to apply and be interviewed to be selected.

Sarasota County, Florida. The Challenges, Solutions, and Innovations Alliance (CSI Alliance) was developed by the county in response to the economic crisis and through a desire to have employees at all levels participate in solution generation and decision making. The CSI Alliance consists of 150 to 200 employees, many of whom are graduates of Sarasota’s leadership development program. The entire organization was invited to suggest what initiatives CSI should work on.

Albemarle County, Virginia. The county is undertaking an ambitious two-phase program to prepare the organization for new practices that foster innovation and to identify high-performing employees for future leadership roles. Groups meet to discuss innovation and best practices and work together on team building, and in early 2011 an Innovative Leaders Institute will be conducted.

Downers Grove, Illinois. The village established The Innovation Team, an interdepartmental group that offers recommendations on creative opportunities for operational improvements and quantifiable cost-saving initiatives across the organization. This team is made up of representatives of every department, and it works with project-specific task forces on more precisely targeted projects. Beyond saving money, the team’s work has helped create a sense of optimism even during these difficult financial times and helped employees pursue innovative solutions to local challenges.

Los Angeles County, California. The Quality and Productivity Commission was created in 1982 by the county board of supervisors to oversee policies and support implementation of programs that enhance the quality and productivity of county services. The 17-member commission and four staff members are guided by nine strategic goals.

Phoenix, Arizona. The city manager, with council approval, created the Innovation and Efficiency Task Force in the early months of 2010. The task force is made up of approximately 30 members—primarily department heads (including the two co-chairs), representatives from labor, and 10 public members. On top of budget cuts of $291 million and the elimination of over 1,500 positions already made over the past three years, the task force has identified ways for the city to generate over $10 million in new revenues or reduced costs in the general fund and more than $25 million in savings to all funds through June 30, 2011.

Front line employees know all too well how inefficient and ineffective most government programs are, but rarely do people engage them and listen to their ideas. We need more government officials willing to move beyond the suggestion box in order to engage the hearts and ideas of employees and the public.

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Jeff Ribeira

I really like that idea of moving “beyond the suggestion box.” While the many of the underlying principles (collaboration, crowd-sourcing, etc…) are still the same, the method really does need some re-imagining. Love the examples you’ve listed! I’d like to hear other examples from some govloopers, too.

Carol Davison

Stephanie, asking for ideas and ignoring them isn’t just insufficient, it insults the employees and customers that made them, and undermines their willingness to improve the organizaation.

In the Air Force our suggestion program gave monetary awards for great suggestions. At NSA a co-worker was awarded $25,000 for his suggestion!

At DON we had a suggestion manager. We would email her suggestions and she would send them to the subject matter expert. Responses to the suggestion appeared in the electronic bi weekly newletter. We always thanked people for their suggestions. Often we could say yes, sometimes we could only implement half a suggestion, and a few times we had to say no and we would explain this in the newsletter so employees knew their suggestions were taken to heart.

Susan Thomas

In my agency, we have an established council of journeyman level employees. The mission of this body is to present ideas and suggestions for improvement to executive management. All of the functional areas have representatives to this body. Employees need to know that management has considered their ideas, whether or not they are adopted. Engagement is key.


I totally agree with Carol – If you ask for input, be prepared to act on it in some way, shape, or form! Why on earth would employees offer suggestions or feedback when management does nothing! Management must be prepared to do something.

Sterling Whitehead

On our agency intranet, there is a big, bright letter tab saying “Contact the Admiral”. You can write him anything you want as long as it is short, to the point, and suggests an action. And the Admiral personally responds within 24 hours. I cannot tell you how important this tool has been to raising employee morale. Even if your idea is turned down, you feel that you got a fair shake.

Mark Forman

Hopefully many of you saw the MeriTalk – SAS survey called Taxing Times. It found that federal employees have great ideas for signficant cost and performance improvements, but that political and career executives often are not supportive of following through on implementation. One of the most important insights I saw in the data was that the key is having a formal plan to getting suggestions and then following through on them. That said, 43% of fed felt their suggestions were always or often implemented, and only 10% thought their suggestions were rarely or never used. So, like Amherst and many other examples, a suggestion box seems to me to be used in place of a real improvement plan…is that ok?

Carol Davison

Mark it is not okay. You need to operate from a strategic improvement plan, not react to random suggestions.

Kacie Galbraith

I love the examples of employees collaborating across departments. Without outside perspectives you can sometimes look at new ideas and automatically think of the reasons they won’t work, instead of how you might shape them in order to make them work. Bringing together employees from different areas and encouraging them to innovate helps foster out-of-the-box thinking!