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Sometimes, Efficiency Takes a While

Times Staff Writer

Three federal employees who won $25,000 to $35,000 each for cost-cutting suggestions wonder why the government granted their efficiency awards so slowly.

“When you first see that your suggestion is worthwhile and it’s going to happen, you would think that is when the award would be given, not years later,” said Stephen A. Schroeder, 45, who received the majority of his $35,000 prize in 1988, eight years after it was initially considered.

“Before the award was approved, I had been on the road briefing the highest Department of Defense officials, including four-star generals and admirals, about how the system was working,” said Schroeder, whose computerized identification of parts in inventory saved the Navy millions.

‘System’s a Bureaucracy’

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“If you understand the system’s a bureaucracy and everything has to go through so many checks and balances, you understand why it takes so long,” said the electronics technician from the U.S. Naval Aviation Depot at North Island near San Diego. “But awarding the money so late is anticlimactic.”

Representatives of the Navy and the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C., said they could not explain why approval took so long.

About 7% of all federal employees, or about 169,000 people, submitted suggestions in 1987, the last year for which statistics were available. A spokesman said the government has implemented about 43,000 of the ideas at an estimated savings of $386 million since the inception of the Federal Incentive Awards Program in 1954.

Schroeder is among 37 individuals or groups who have won more than $25,000 for money-saving suggestions. A half-dozen winners reside in California and many agree with Schroeder’s opinions about the timing of the awards.

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Four-Year Delay

“The whole purpose of the awards is to increase morale. It certainly does when you learn you are going to receive $25,000. But the four-year delay takes the luster off the program,” said senior research scientist John Pearson of the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, who was nominated for a $25,000 award in 1985 and will receive the final $15,000 this year.

“Plus, it’s frustrating that you never really know that you’re going to get it. There’s always that uncertainty,” said Pearson, who made warheads more efficient by discovering a way to control fragmentation.

“Frankly, I had given up on this. When they called me (to tell me the $15,000 had been approved), it was the first I had heard in a long time.”

Even an 18-month delay can produce frustration, said Gregory Steuer, 31, who oversees Air Force contractors in Sacramento. Steuer and his wife will fly to Washington this month to receive the final $15,000 of his $25,000 award for suggesting shorter engine tests, reducing the cost of liquid propellant.

‘Value of Ideas’

While the length of the award deliberations frustrated many winners, it did not upset all.

“Getting the money (earlier) would (have been) nice,” said engineer Jack A. Crawford of the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, whose $15,000 award, shared with two partners, was announced last week after a 1985 nomination. (He received $10,000 earlier.)

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“On the other hand, the income tax rates have dropped a little, so that’s a help. And it’s a lot better than the first patent I had. At that time what you got was $1 and other valuable considerations, only you didn’t get the dollar. . . .

“We used to joke about that,” Crawford said. He was cited for inventing a missile targeting system. “I think there has been definite (recent) improvement in recognizing the value of ideas (government) employees come up with.”

Schroeder developed his parts identification system after being told that switches for 14 test benches would cost the government $3.3 million. Making about 45 calls, he found many of the necessary parts “across the bay at the naval supply center for 22 cents (each)” and fixed the benches for about $420.

“It made me think that if we can do that with that piece of equipment, how many other pieces are out there which are similar or common to each other (and which would save us money if we could find them)?”

Windfalls With Purpose

Schroeder and other winners used their financial windfalls for different purposes. Pearson will add to his retirement fund. Steuer paid bills and augmented his retirement plan, while Schroeder expanded his home with a dining room and a hobby room where his wife could paint.

“They are a real joy to me,” he said. “My 20-year-old son and I did most of the work. It was a time to get to know each other again.”

Schroeder also said the award inspired him to seek additional money-saving methods. “I’m working with the office of the assistant secretary of defense to develop ways industry can be more cost effective in the world market. It will help lower our costs when they sell to the military, so everybody will be happy.”

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In the meantime, Pearson is left with an idea about the value of his invention.

His controlled fragmentation warheads are cheaper and more efficient than earlier models, helping the armed services to fly fewer missions and to save pilots’ lives. The system is used in all U.S. military services and by some U.S. allies, and Pearson knows its worth on the open market.

“If I had the commercial rights to the patent,” he said, “I would be a multimillionaire.”


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