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SPRINGFIELD — Gov. Bruce Rauner occasionally mentions that he wants to find ways to reward state workers for ideas that help government agencies operate more efficiently and save money for taxpayers.

"I'd love to give people 5 percent of every dollar they save with an idea," the Republican former venture capitalist said earlier this year at an Illinois Chamber of Commerce event in Springfield. "That could be a lot. And, boy, do our state employees have good ideas for saving money. They've got a ton."

In fact, Illinois has had a system in place since the mid-1980s that's designed to reward employees for cost-saving ideas. Through a body now called the State Government Suggestion Award Board, Illinois has received ideas that have saved more than $566,000 since 1993, according to the board's annual reports.

But since at least 2008, when the board began taking suggestions from the public as well as state workers, it hasn't given out a cent. What's more, the board has been inactive for more than three years following the retirement of its last chairman, former state Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield.

The Rauner administration says it's looking to revitalize the board and create programs that will reward state workers for finding ways to save money, drawing on a concept more widely used in the private sector.

One such program was announced last week at the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Department head Bryan Schneider told employees in a memo that they'll qualify for bonuses if they can save the state money while maintaining or improving service. The pilot program will pay eligible employees 25 percent of the money saved, according to the memo.

"Each division will have performance targets that must be achieved to ensure that we aren't saving money by compromising on quality," Schneider wrote. "I would like to emphasize that this will be a group effort: performance targets will be group goals and savings will be measured on an agency-wide basis."

The bonuses, which won't count toward employees' pensions, will be distributed evenly to all eligible employees based on the percentage of performance targets that are met. For example, if the department cuts spending by $1 million and meets all targets, $250,000 would be divvied up. If only half of the targets are met, $125,000 would be available for bonuses.

Eligibility of many employees is contingent on agreement from their unions, and the Rauner administration has yet to reach deals with either the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees or the Illinois Federation of Public Employees, both of which represent workers at IDPFR.

AFSCME has been engaged in a heated contract dispute with the administration for well over a year, and an administrative law judge for the Illinois Labor Relations Board is weighing whether talks have reached an impasse. A decision isn't expected until November.

Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, which represents about 36,000 state workers, said the union can't consider the so-called "gainsharing" programs or anything else until the administration returns to the bargaining table.

The union is somewhat skeptical of the concept, Lindall said.

"Our union believes, as a general matter, that the best and the fairest way for workers and for the public interest alike is to distribute any pay increases fairly across the entire workforce," he said.

Given the varied and complex tasks assigned to employees with 800 job titles across nearly two dozen state agencies, coming up with fair ways to quantify performance could prove challenging, Lindall said.

"It's difficult to imagine how you would do that when it comes to investigating child abuse and keeping kids safe or working as a correctional officer in a state prison or answering 911 calls for the state police," he said.

A report to the Minnesota Legislature last year from Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans on similar programs in that state and nearly 20 others reached a similar conclusion.

"Measuring gains is at times an imperfect exercise that could lead to inequitable results and rewards or, at the very least, could open the door to unnecessary employee disputes or appeals of rewards in which the employee feels entitled to a greater share of the gain," Frans wrote.

"Programs within the state agencies vary greatly in terms of size, scope, structure, purpose and performance measurements," he wrote. "A uniform method to document savings across dissimilar programs is challenging."

The Rauner administration says it aims to tailor programs to individual agencies and to distribute awards equally to groups of employees.


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