Upside to Shrinking Budgets? Innovation.

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Federal belt-tightening has seen some positive outcomes.

There is a bright side to shrinking budgets at federal agencies: They may just force employees to come up with new and innovative ways of doing business.

That’s according to Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who told Wired Workplace last week that budget cuts and a crackdown on federal conference spending forced the agency to take a more innovative approach to engaging employees and stakeholders involved in the Student and Exchange Visitor program, which manages nonimmigrant students and their dependents and also certifies schools to accept international students.

While the agency previously reached out to stakeholders by traveling to both national and international conferences, budget cuts and the crackdown on conference spending made those trips less frequent. Instead, the agency began engaging stakeholders online, through online webinars, blogs and social media.

“Everyone encounters obstacles in their business activities; it’s hard to overcome those obstacles, but we developed a new solution,” Cutrell said. “We knew we had certain goals to meet, and this was just another way of meeting them.”

In lieu of going to conferences where the stakeholders are, ICE requests they instead meet online, and to much success: The agency’s 11 webinars and 12 teleconferences held thus far this year have yielded roughly 400 to 600 attendees each, and 91 percent of attendees have agreed the content was useful.

A recent study by Market Connections found online training and webinars have become more commonplace in government as budgets have shrunk. Less than half (42 percent) of the more than 3,700 federal employees surveyed said they attended conferences, trade shows or industry events in 2014, down from 49 percent in 2013 and 62 percent in 2011. Webinar participation is rising, however, as 66 percent of federal employees said they partook in a webinar in 2014, compared to 62 percent in 2013 and 51 percent in 2011.

“I saw those survey results and thought, 'wow, that’s us,'” Cutrell said.

Some agencies may still be reeling from budget cuts, so much that they haven’t thought of implementing more innovative ways of doing business. Overall, budget cuts have led to some positive changes at ICE, Cutrell said.

“Agencies should think about what their end goal is and work back from there,” she said. “Think about what you want to accomplish, the parameters you have to work within, and then come up with a solution that meets your goals.”

ICE also is active in DHS’ initiative to migrate all of its websites to the same content management system. Next week, the agency will unveil an enhanced version of its Study in the States website, which will feature an interactive glossary, an “Ask a Question” feature and an interactive school search section.

The new website “presents several opportunities to increase efficiency and share resources between the component agencies,” Cutrell said. 

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