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'We Are the Best'
Zerhouni Challenges NIH'ers to 'Start Winning' A-76 Bouts

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

Amid lingering concern among the rank and file about the potential impact of A-76, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni took to the Natcher stage at a June 18 town hall meeting with a strong message for employees: the NIH workforce is the best, and the best can prevail.

Continued...

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni

"A-76 is a competitive process," Zerhouni said. "We're going to review the way we do our work, figure out what is the most important way of doing the work efficiently, identify — on our own terms — the level of excellence that we expect, and we're going to fight and compete for these jobs. And my intent is to win every one of those competitions."

One year into his tenure as agency head, Zerhouni presided over his second town meeting to discuss topics raised by employees, mainly via a web site set up for the event. He said more than 60 percent of responses concerned A-76; about 15 percent more were related to other administrative issues; and a significant percentage asked about security measures NIH has taken or planned. Zerhouni also restated his intention to hold open forums every 6 months.

Science and Administration 'Inseparable'

"Over the past 12 months as I've taken this job, a tremendous amount of activity has occurred — both in the scientific area as well as the administrative area," he said, spending the first few minutes of the event giving opening remarks. "People tend to speak of those things separately, but I don't think they should be separated. They are indistinguishable, and inseparable, because you can't do good science without outstanding administrative support."

The director also talked briefly about what he called "one of the highlights of the year" — development of his Roadmap Initiative, which brought together many top intramural and extramural scientists and advisors to chart NIH's course for the next several years.

"The output from the work groups was just outstanding," Zerhouni said. "The amount of talent within NIH, as well as the vision with which these groups have worked, is just heartwarming and extraordinary."

He curtailed his overview of the past year in order to address what he acknowledged is the topic uppermost on the minds of many employees — increased enforcement of the Office of Management and Budget's circular A-76. Now in its second phase at NIH, A-76 is a mandate for federal agencies to determine which functions in its workforce are "inherently governmental," and which roles potentially could be performed by commercial sources outside the government. Some jobs that are deemed commercial may then be opened for competitions that pit federal workers' MEO (most efficient organization) proposals against private contractor proposals, which must be at least 10 percent cheaper than the federal bid. Whichever proposal is judged to be more efficient wins the jobs.

Before introducing Bill Fitzsimmons, NIMH's executive officer who offered a mini overview of NIH's efforts to comply with A-76, and Dr. Robert Desimone, NIMH scientific director who chairs a new community advisory board for security (CABS), Zerhouni used the final moments of his remarks to reassure anxious employees and to reemphasize his confidence that the NIH workforce can defeat any competition it faces.

NIMH's Bill Fitzsimmons

"NIH is at the top in scientific management," he stressed. "My experience after 1 year is that I cannot think of anyone out there who could put together a team of employees the way we have here and win over us, when we are the ones to determine how the jobs need to be done and how efficiently they need to be done.

"In fairness to the taxpayer," Zerhouni continued, "we have to prove that what we're doing is not wasteful. My message is that yes, these are challenges, but we will stick together and do whatever we can to protect our employees. I'm committed to that...We have a choice: We can look at these issues, duck and put our heads in the sand, or we can face them straight, be courageous and have a strong proactive attitude towards them. We should be able to win. We are the best organization in science. I believe that or I wouldn't be here...The option is either we keep whining or we start winning. My message to you is we're going to start winning."


A-76 at Issue

Fitzsimmons recounted the history of A-76, which has existed since the Eisenhower administration, but has begun to be enforced more rigorously under the current President's Management Agenda. Fitzsimmons said NIH determined that half of its 18,000 employees perform functions that can be done only by federal workers. The other 9,000 positions, he said, can be considered for outsourcing. In fiscal year 2002, NIH was told to review 5 percent (450) of the 9,000 jobs for potential conversion from federal to private sector. In FY2003, 10 percent more are under review; by FY2004, another 10 percent will be examined; and by FY2005, 25 percent more will be targeted.

"We actually have been winning these things," Fitzsimmons said. Currently, employees in two functions — facilities and real property management, and extramural administrative support — are facing review. Requests for proposals by contractors in those areas have been posted and MEOs are in development; results should be known by the end of September. "In most cases, federal employees win," he pointed out, citing figures from the Department of Defense, which has already undergone the A-76 process on a wider scale.

Dr. Robert Desimone

Still, Fitzsimmons cautioned, winning may not "mean business as usual." For example, in order to compete with a private sector proposal, an MEO might have to suggest doing a specific job with fewer employees than the job has required in the past. A win with such an MEO would still mean trimming positions from NIH's rolls, and doing more work with fewer staff. Regardless of victory, he explained, NIH'ers should expect and prepare for changes in the way the agency conducts business.

"The thing to remember is that NIH is totally committed to the people who are displaced," Fitzsimmons concluded. "Certainly there's going to be disruption, but the net effect will be that we can handle whatever arises."


One of the first questions raised from the audience concerned the fairness of the process. Richard Laubach, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2419, said that the rules for A-76 changed on May 29 and that it is unclear to many employees whether reviews that were already under way before that date are governed by the old rules or the new ones. He said workers are also very concerned about the speed with which NIH is conducting reviews. Laubach said that according to Warden & Associates, the firm hired by NIH to consult on the process, studies of similar scope and size normally require 18 months to 2 years to complete, but that NIH is seeking results in 8 ½ months.

"We need to remember that A-76 is a competitive outsourcing evaluation process," Zerhouni replied. "My emphasis in this is on the word 'competitive,' not the word 'outsourcing.' We intend to win these competitions. I find the rules are favorable to us. We have a significant advantage in terms of quality. We get to define the job and to define the parameters of the job. My commitment is I want a fair process. I want a process that looks at the credibility of our work. I'm telling managers to be fair and open."

Change Inevitable, Preparation Crucial

Steven Rivero of ORS's building maintenance section wanted to know whether NIH is being realistic in its commitment to find a job at the same grade and pay for all employees who lose A-76 competitions, given the potential hundreds of workers that could face displacement.

Again, Zerhouni reiterated his faith in NIH'ers to win more than they lose.

"What's really fair to employees is to make sure we are working efficiently so that we win the competitions," he stressed. "That's number one. Everything is geared to making sure we have the best chance of winning, so the numbers [that have to be placed] may not be as large [as estimates]."

Ken Joholske (r) leads the line of questioners (from l) Steve Rivero, Dr. Eric Bailey and Richard Laubach.

Also, Fitzsimmons noted, NIH has established a transition committee to develop a response to the "worst-case scenario" that competitions are lost and some employees need retraining for new positions, or career counseling. Other strategies also are expected "to ease the transition," he said, including hiring freezes, early-outs and buyouts that can help the agency meet workforce quotas. "There is no RIF [reduction in force] on the horizon here. The secretary has made a commitment to us that no one will lose federal employment, so we're going with that in good faith," said Fitzsimmons.

Reemphasizing the point, Zerhouni said, "I can tell you right now that we are not contemplating RIF'ing anybody." The director also wanted to know why Rivero thought his unit was in danger of losing so many jobs.

Rivero replied that his unit works at its optimum efficiency, but that loss of nearly one-third of its staff over the last few years could make the unit vulnerable in a competition with proposals from fully staffed contractors.

"I am concerned about the same thing," Zerhouni said, "but if there is an assumption that we're not as good, not as efficient as anyone else out there, then I want to understand why....We have to look at that square in the eye. We have to face that."

Ed Burns of ORS, who is also an AFGE official, wondered if NIH intends to perform a "mock RIF situation" and whether such an exercise would factor in an employee's veteran's preferences, seniority and awards when considering placement options. "That's the only real fair way of selecting who stays in their job and who has to go to the transition unit," he said. "That's very important to a lot of us, especially us vets."

Fitzsimmons responded that NIH had committed to treat employees fairly and to do what is required by law. "As far as I know, there has been no commitment to do a mock RIF," he said.

Security: For the People, By the People

In his opening remarks, Zerhouni had acknowledged employees' interest in NIH's evolving strategies to secure the campus and prepare for emergencies. He stressed that a balance between security and freedom is being sought — and achieved — at NIH. "We've worked as diligently as we could to lower the burden of security on our community," he said, calling on NIMH's Desimone to give a short statement on how plans are taking shape.

"Dr. Zerhouni asked for this committee to be formed so that we could integrate our need to be safe with our need to carry out our research mission, which is probably unique among all federal installations," Desimone said, explaining that the group's first goal was to develop a governing philosophy. "We have adopted a cost-benefit approach, so that we balance the increment in security that we would get from different procedures with the costs — not only the dollar cost, but also the impact on our research operation."

Foremost in the philosophy is compliance with all government regulations, he said, noting that the rules often offer leeway in interpretation. The highest priority was given to the campus's ability to protect itself from "weaponized vehicles." The perimeter fence being erected reflects that goal. In addition, the committee determined that "employees would be treated differently than visitors," Desimone said. Relaxation of some of the mandatory bag searches and x-ray procedures for employees entering buildings is an indication of the group's efforts.

Most recently, plans for emergency shelter-in-place and orderly evacuation of the campus have been on the committee's agenda, he continued. Better communication with employees in emergency situations has been considered as well: NIH has purchased an emergency broadcast radio system to help spread information rapidly. "The committee is actively struggling with operational procedures in a post-fence environment and issues related to the new visitor center," Desimone concluded, inviting employee suggestions via a new automated web site form or email to him.

Problems Present Opportunities

During the comment period, Randy Schools, president of the Recreation and Welfare Association at NIH, asked if there were ways to bring back more activities that fell victim to NIH's increased security measures in the last 2 years. Many of the relocated events, he reminded, were developed specifically to address the health, welfare and quality of life of NIH's workforce.

At the microphone, Randy Schools of the R&W Association discusses the effect of the campus's enhanced security policies on employee activities.

"What made NIH continue to grow is its campus-like setting," he said. "A lot of that campus-like setting has sort of disappeared."

Acknowledging that he was aware of the issue, Zerhouni responded, "We have had internal discussions where we hear the same points you raise, that in all of these trends, we don't want to lose the sense of community and the sense of commitment to help our own."

NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, who moderated the town meeting, agreed. "Everybody — all the scientists and all the staff — are very sensitive to this," he said, "and we miss that interaction, no doubt about it."

Zerhouni said he has always felt that "security is for the people and the people should have a voice" in planning it.

Throughout the forum, Zerhouni echoed the collegial chord he had struck at the start of the meeting, when he told the assembly that he too was feeling stress brought on by the difficult era.

"I'll be frank," he said. "I agree that these are trying times — one day you hear about your job that may be considered for outsourcing, the next day you hear about the reduction in FTEs [full-time equivalencies], at the same time as our budget is growing. Security is a major area of concern as well...all of this at the same time that the scientific opportunities are growing. We have a tremendous challenge in front of us in meeting our mission, not just in science in general, but also in biodefense. So times are challenging."

Zerhouni said he adopted his philosophy about tough times from the Chinese yin-yang symbol: "You can identify the problem, but right next to it is an opportunity. I think we need to look at these issues directly and understand them fully. My lesson in life is that I never ran away from [difficult] issues, because I always consider them opportunities."

Not Just A-76, Security
Other Topics Draw Questions, Require Follow-Up

Although more than two-thirds of the 65-minute town hall meeting dealt with A-76 and security issues, there were other concerns expressed during the forum. In fact the first question addressed another administrative matter on the minds of many employees recently.

Ken Joholske of the NIH Library asked for clear standards in a new employee appraisal "addendum" dated Apr. 7 and distributed broadly throughout NIH. The one-page document, which some employees have been required to sign as part of their annual performance reviews, is an agreement to achieve the department's "One HHS" objectives. Five program objectives and 10 management objectives are listed; however, the addendum mentions no specific actions employees must take, nor how worker performance will be rated using the objectives. Another attendee later asked what consequences would be faced by employees who do not sign the document.

In his second town meeting, NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni (r) addresses a number of administrative issues, including outsourcing and security. NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman (l) moderated the hour-long open forum.

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni asked Mike Rosenthal of the NIH Office of Human Resources to respond. Rosenthal explained that the addendum arrived at NIH as a supplement to the new performance contracts that are another component of the President's Management Agenda. He said that at present, only NIH's 2,600 supervisors have been required to sign the agreements, but that eventually all employees will be asked to commit to fulfilling the objectives. He also pointed out that NIH is still working out details of how the agreement will be applied to performance. Also not yet known are the repercussions for not signing the addendum. Promises to follow up on the issue were made.

Another topic was raised by Dr. Eric Bailey of the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. He asked whether and how scientists can become more involved in NIH's program development and planning processes.

"The intent at NIH is definitely to put as much science as possible into program development," Zerhouni responded, pointing out that the institutes and centers are all directed by scientists. "My view is that science is complex and multidisciplinary, so the more diversity we can have in science at the program development level the better. That's one thing that I think will make the agency stronger.

"I think we need to inject science in everything we do," he continued. "In competition for A-76 as well as program development, we need to include as much science as possible. This is what makes NIH unique and what makes NIH the crown jewel that it is."

Emphasizing the importance of dialogue before closing his remarks, Zerhouni repeated the intent of his town hall meetings:

"I think we should share our concerns," he said. "I don't want this to be one-way communication. I want to hear, as well. These town meetings are the forum to do that. I don't think the issues should just be 'how do we purchase pencils, etc.' Those are important issues, but those are not the defining issues of NIH. NIH is going to be defined by how it leads in the 21st century."

Employees may continue to email concerns to Zerhouni at director@nih.gov.


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