Gainshare and share alike? Re-inventing government: Time will tell if experiment saves money or is just a fad.

July 19, 1996

BALTIMORE COUNTY this month begins paying employees to save taxpayers money. The program is called "gainsharing," and apparently it's the coming thing among cash-strapped local governments looking to reward employees with something other than a raise. Gainsharing, in which employees get to pocket part of any savings they come up with, was also one of the recommendations of a recent Howard County report that concluded employees are overpaid and need more incentives to perform better.

It's difficult to come down on anything that rewards workers and makes them feel like they have a stake in their place of employment, especially at a time when public workers' morale is in the pits. Moreover, consultants hired by Baltimore County (to the tune of $250,000) contend that gainsharing will save millions of dollars over time. That estimate is based on more than $200,000 in projected savings from a one-year pilot involving two groups of employees in Baltimore County. Like most innovations, this is an experiment, and county governments won't know if it works unless they try it.

Despite the administration's insistence that gainsharing is a no-lose proposition for both employees and taxpayers, it does entail risks. There are philosophical and practical questions about it.

Philosophically, the central question is whether taxpayers should have to pay public employees to come up with good ideas or whether that should be part of their jobs. More than money, consultants say, what employees like most about gainsharing is having their opinions taken seriously. One would think good managers should listen to their workers and value good ideas, with or without gainsharing.

Practically, the most important question is whether gainsharing sets up an equation where an employee's gain could be a taxpayer's loss. Will employees become so eager to come up with savings that they gradually erode services? The administration says it will not accept any idea that means a degradation in quality, but what constitutes a decline is subjective.

Officials must be careful to use gainsharing primarily to improve the services taxpayers pay for. Other fads to reinvent government have come and gone and, frankly, this one seems more complex than most.

Pub Date: 7/19/96

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