Red Ink in Red Ink
What Printers Taught Me about Government Waste
While I worked in Washington and the Governor’s Office, we talked about government waste, but it was in broad sweeping terms or using obvious examples. You hear politicians say things like, “government should run more like a business,” to the point of numbness. In reality, the operation of government, agency to agency, at any level bleeds money in ways politicians could never imagine, including me. Until I discovered what has become known simply as “The Printer Story.”
Some Necessary Background
In 2011, I became the Chief Operating Officer at the South Carolina Department of Education. The newly-elected Superintendent, Mick Zais (rhymes with face), only the second Republican elected to the position, asked me to take over the agency's day-to-day operations of nearly 1,000 employees. Mick is a retired Brigadier General, Ph.D., and college president. In 2018, Mick was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of Education, serving with Secretary Betsy DeVos. He would become Acting Secretary of Education in the closing days of the Trump Administration and assisted the incoming Secretary in the transfer of power.
Before I walked in the door of the Department, I’d started outlining a reorganization plan to consolidate operations and introduce some new functions the agency desperately needed. South Carolina holds the distinction of owning and maintaining every school bus in the state, so more than half of the Department staff were mechanics in the 48 bus shops. The programmatic staff operated in four office locations in Columbia. Four years after I started, we’d shrunk the footprint to 45 bus shops and three office locations and eliminated an offsite storage warehouse.
To accomplish the task of reorganizing, I became a tourist in the building. I visited offices, got to know the staff, and felt how the place operated. As I took inventory of the buildings, it seemed like there was a printer everywhere I looked. It’s one of those things you observe until you know what to do about it.
Do I Have to Approve This!?
One day, Jay Ragley, our Director of Legislative and Public Affairs, walked into my office, slammed a piece of paper on my desk, and said, “Do I have to approve this!?”
It was an $800 invoice for three toner cartridges submitted for approval by the administrative assistant in his office. The admin would print four copies of every education-related bill introduced in the General Assembly. She distributed them to Jay, our Deputy Superintendent for Policy, and me, the three people Zais hired to bring into the agency at the start of his term. The three of us found it amusing that Jay’s predecessor insisted the admin print and file the bills as though the internet didn’t exist and we couldn’t monitor all of those bills without killing trees. The practice ceased with the $800 toner cartridge invoice.
My interest in the printers started to grow. Experience told me that printing is directly proportional to the effort it takes. If a printer was near your desk, it was too easy and likely, unnecessary. I’m a paperless fanatic and eliminated file cabinets from my office for full disclosure.
My next stop was our IT Director, who informed me that 80 percent of the Network Service support calls were printer-related. He offered, with some frustration, that printer calls were always “code red” because they seemed to involve time-sensitive projects.
In my travels around the building, I started suggesting to our leadership that they should consider printer consolidation to cut down on the demand and costs. It was observational and not a directive, so no one agreed to disarm unilaterally.
Two months in, I decided to raise the issue with our senior staff. We met every Friday, and I asked them to present a consolidation plan at the next meeting. The following week, no one had a plan.
One of our Deputy Superintendents spoke up, “I’ve heard you talk about the printers a lot, and we don’t know how many we have, but it’s not a problem.”
“You’re right,” I responded, “we don’t know how many we have.” I asked the IT Director to do an inventory of printers and report the following week. He sent me an email the following Thursday reading, “I wish I could be there tomorrow!” He informed me he’d be in the field, but he’d attached a spreadsheet with the inventory of printers at our four Columbia locations.
We had a total of 644 printers for 400 employees. I am no expert on the ideal printer to employee ratio, but I’m sure 1.6 to 1 is too high. Anecdotally, my favorite find in the report was that THREE printers were assigned to one employee, and no one knew why. He’d also run a report on the cost of printing per page, which ranged from 10 cents to 25 cents, depending on the printer. It was far worse than I could have imagined. We could contract at no cost, high-volume network copier/scanner/printers, and print at three cents per page. I couldn’t calculate the simple savings sitting right there before me.
I called the head of our print services team and asked him to get my office printer right away. I planned to purge the agency, and it had to start at the top.
I told him that I would remove as many printers as possible and move everyone to network printers. Ryan, an earnest young man from Lee County, was one of the nicest people you’d ever meet. Unfortunately for him, I had just designated him the “Printer Grim Reaper.”
I provided my report and decision to the senior staff, telling them we were starting immediately. Ryan was already moving the printers onto each floor and would be around to collect printers, like an urban fighter, going door-to-door.
I’d picked the perfect man for the job. Everyone in the agency liked him and knew he was just following the orders of “the guy at the top.” When he showed up, some of the staff had reached peace, and the job went smoothly. In other cases, someone would need a moment to say their goodbyes as if they’d just lost a loved one. He listened with the greatest compassion and helped them reach Stage Five in the grieving process.
The prior administration managed budget cuts by requiring everyone to take ten furlough days, which is more disruptive than cost savings. Somehow cutting two weeks of their salaries was still less troubling than taking away the printers.
The clever bureaucrats pronounced they weren’t giving up their printers because they printed sensitive information and could not risk personal information sitting on a printer in the common area. I told Ryan not to argue but keep moving before the idea spread like wildfire. We’d be back for those printers next.
All told, we removed 360 printers in the first round. Storing them in the headquarters' basement, along with all the accompanying toner cartridges.
Round Two - The Reckoning
As we removed printers, we learned the South Carolina Department of Revenue had been the subject of a ransomware attack. Six million identities were held hostage, and it became a crisis for every agency holding the citizens' personal information. I wandered the halls at night while the cleaning staff went about their business. Looking at the physical security of the building, screen locks, and how we treated the information during our off hours.
On any floor, papers with personal information sat in those “necessary printers” left forgotten at the end of the day. The cleaning crews left the doors open, giving access to the information to anyone wandering around the halls. It wasn’t a high risk, but it gave me the idea of getting rid of the rest of the printers.
Our newly-acquired network printers had a secure print function. When active, a user would enter a code for the print job to execute. This helped prevent mixing papers together for multiple user printers and saved sensitive information from sitting in the open for anyone to grab.
So Ryan was charged with assigning a print code to everyone in the agency. I then banned any printer that did not have a secure print function, and we were off to collect more printers and move them to the basement.
By the time we completed the project, we had learned the original inventory of 644 printers was actually an inventory of 714 printers - that’s almost two printers for every employee in the building.
About the Toner Cartridge
We moved to either sell every printer through surplus, give them to high-performing Title I schools, or startup charter schools around the state. We were almost at the point of standing on the corner and just handing them out to people walking by. With the printers went the toner cartridge. We supported classrooms around the state, so it was all for a good cause. Until we ran out of printers.
When we’d finally moved out all the printers, Ryan gave me a tour of the place to show me they were all gone. What caught my eye was the racks of toner cartridges sitting against the wall.
“Ryan, I thought we were giving all the toner cartridges away with printers.”
“We did; these didn’t go with any printers we had.”
That’s right; we had orphaned boxes of toner cartridges sitting in storage around the building. Another printer services employee, who had worked her way through college at Staples, was with us. I asked her to inventory the cartridges and the cost to the agency.
The report appeared in my inbox a few days later with the simple message, “I checked these numbers three times.”
The total inventory of orphaned toner cartridges was more than $100,000.
How Does This Happen?
We lived two fiscal years at the Department of Education: 1. The State Fiscal Year from July 1st to June 30th and 2. The Federal Fiscal Year from October 1st to September 30th. As the fiscal years wind down, offices with “too much” cash on hand started spending on small items. Procurement rules allowed office directors to sign off on $500 or less purchases, so the office equipment and supplies spending spree began. This is the bureaucratic response to the age-old “use it or lose it” budgeting practice that office funding would be cut if it didn’t maintain a certain level of spending. In this case, more than $1 million of surplus printers and toner cartridges - plus an incalculable amount of print waste.
The resulting policy change required CIO approval for any technology purchases in the agency. This change prevented fad purchases, like “iPads for all” in 2012 and generated $1 million in savings in our computer leasing. Best of all, I stopped the mayhem of purchasing more printers and toner cartridges.1
More than Theory
We targeted non-critical functions, like utilizing best practices for travel, space management, and technology procurement, to yield $10 million in savings in just four years. Those savings seem small when dealing with a $4 billion budget, but there are better places to invest education dollars than within a state-run government agency. The problem for most policymakers is they lack the internal experience to understand government waste in tangible ways.
The Government Accountability Office studies and recommends ways to eliminate waste, overlap, and duplication in government, yielding billions in savings at the federal level. Some states perform similar oversight functions within government agencies, but those functions are often underfunded or based on targeted investigations and not wholesale operational evaluations.
In some ways, this story and a number of the other actions I took seem a bit obsessive. My first job in Washington was working at Citizens Against Government Waste, and I’d been working on those issues for nearly 20 years by the time I reached the Department of Education. Putting all that theory into action was one of the most educational experiences of my career. Earmarks or absurd local projects always generate media interest. In reality, your tax dollars are wasted in an accumulation of bad decisions made $500 or less at a time.
We also eliminated 150 fax machines from the agency, but that was far less painful.