Form Over Substance: Federal Employee Virtual Suggestion Program Falls Flat

Setting up a program to ensure it is successful means paying attention to details. A program to encourage suggestions from federal employees on how to improve government got considerable publicity. The result: A big yawn from the federal workforce. Perhaps the program sponsors should have told the federal workforce where to send their ideas instead of just extolling the benefits of their new idea for creating a 21st century bureaucracy.

Did you ever have a brainstorm come  to you that you knew would be successful? All of us have at one time or another. Sometimes these big ideas really work. Sometimes big ideas get derailed because of small problems.

Here is an example of a big idea. It sounded great. In fact, the idea led to soundbites and articles around the country in the national media for several days: A virtual suggestion box for federal employees. It would give federal employees a chance to tell the White House how to cut spending, improve government efficiency and, perhaps, change the world by ignoring the entire chain of command and going right to the top.

FedSmith ran a couple of articles on the subject when President Obama mentioned the idea in his weekly radio program.

We ran a link to an article from the Washington Post. We also set up a link to a summary of the President’s remarks on the White House website and wrote an article about the great idea (See Here is Your Chance to Save Money: A Virtual Suggestion Box)

A number of readers sent in ideas to the FedSmith site in reference to the article about the national suggestion box. A number of readers also asked us where to find the suggestion box to send in ideas.

So, where was this 21st century suggestion box located that is to replace the big wooden, 19th century relic that used to occupy some federal personnel offices (now they are often called “human capital offices” to reflect our new, improved federal personnel system often run by companies hired by the government to provide these services).

We could not locate the box. We used several search engines, went through a dozen or so news articles about the suggestion box and the summary of the president’s outline of the program. We did a search of looking for the suggestion box. We also searched through the Office of Personnel Management website.

We never found this elusive suggestion box.

I use the internet every day and worked in and around government for several decades and thought I was fairly good at finding information. With no references to this new, innovative idea, it crossed my mind that this was a ruse designed to let federal employees think something new and innovative was taking place and to let them send in their ideas but without anything actually happening.

In the final analysis, perhaps it was my own incompetence for not being able to locate the new virtual suggestion box and let readers know about it despite using a fairly powerful computer and several search engines. I must have used the wrong keywords in the search. But, since no other publication apparently had the information either, I forgot about the suggestion box and moved on to other topics.

The Politico has now run an article on the results of the president’s initiative and how the suggestion box idea worked out. The results of the initiative: About 50 federal employees sent in substantive comments. There were 91 total comments. FedSmith had more comments than that when we ran a link to an article about the suggestion box.

Here is a summary from the Politico article: “When the Obama Administration threw open the floodgates in February, inviting all 1.9 million federal employees to stretch their imaginations and propose ideas on how the government could be more transparent, no one was prepared for what came pouring back. A trickle….91 comments, and about half of those were questions or remarks on other people’s ideas.”

Apparently, no one else could find the suggestion box either.

But, believe it or not, we have now located this elusive box as it appears to have emerged from somewhere in the depths of the White House web site.

It was easier to find it this time around. There was a picture of an internet page in the Politico with a title of “Open Government Initiative.” Going to, there was an article on the front page about the “Open Government Initiative Discussion Phase.” From there, we found a reference to a page called “From the Inbox.” On that page was a sentence that read “We encourage input and suggestions from everyone on transparency, participation, collaboration, and innovation in Government. We welcome proposal and report submissions to our mailbox at We will publish them here.”

That email address, apparently, is the virtual suggestion box for federal employees.

Sometimes people in high level positions are thought of as being removed from the lives of everyday people. No doubt, that image may impact some in the White House.

Perhaps the folks at the “Open Government Initiative” assumed all 2.7 million or so federal employees (including the Postal Service) knew about their blog site and check on it everyday to find out what the important people who work there are thinking and writing.

Whatever the thought process, the White House did a great job of letting everyone know about the project and taking credit for being innovative, experimental, and edgy in their approach to using the internet and creating a 21st century government.

But, if they really wanted suggestions and not just a chance to issue press releases, the public relations folks forgot to let the millions of federal employees know how to submit their ideas. Perhaps they just wanted credit for setting up the program. Perhaps they thought their program was so important everyone in government knew how to find their blog site and was very familiar with the important work they were doing. Or, perhaps, in publicizing the program and how it would change the way government works, they just overlooked a couple of minor details.

In any event, you can try sending your suggestions for changing government to the mailbox at There is no guarantee anyone will listen since the listening phase may now be over but you can give it a try.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47