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Out of Many, One
Human Resources Undergoes Major Agency-Wide Restructuring

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

If the staff of your human resources office seem a little distracted lately, try to be understanding. For the past 11 months, human resources at NIH has been in the midst of a major, fast-tracked reorganization that was scheduled to debut on Oct. 6. Although a few issues remain to be settled, it is a testament to the hard work, creativity — and flexibility — of the 300-some employees involved in NIH's HR enterprise that the restructuring appears seamless to most of us.


NIH Acting Director for Human Resources Fred Walker, who served as project co-manager for the restructuring, would like all staff to be open-minded, considering this an "opportunity to enhance your career growth, pursue new knowledge and gain new experiences. I also hope that people will share their ideas by telling us what's working well and give us input on what helps them to be successful."

Concept to Completion in 11 Months

Last November, HHS and the Office of Management and Budget mandated that HR activities be centralized, citing a need for department-wide consistency in such procedures as handling job applications, according to Lori Thompson of NIAMS, who led the reorganization's communication effort. Officials felt that many people hoping to work for HHS found it difficult to navigate around the dozens of departmental personnel offices. NIH, for instance, was home to more than 25 different HR offices — nearly one for each institute and center. The longterm HHS goal is to reduce the number of personnel offices in the department from 40 to 4 by October 2003. The implication for NIH was particularly keen. Because its IC HR offices were not even considered part of the 40, NIH's first hurdle was to restructure the individual IC units into a central Office of Human Resources (OHR).

Lori Thompson
"When I heard what we had to do, i.e., consolidate down to one personnel office, the thought of taking on this task was at first overwhelming," says Marvene Horwitz, NINDS deputy executive officer and the project's other co-manager.

The first step was to develop short- and long-term plans. All personnel processing had to be consolidated by early 2002; all operations must be reduced to one HHS office (covering Bethesda, Rockville, Baltimore and Atlanta) by Oct. 1, 2003.

"We also knew we needed help in getting information to assist the transition committee in its deliberations," Horwitz recalls. "We contracted with the National Academy for Public Administration (NAPA) to hold focus groups and do benchmarking. Another important first step was establishing the communications subcommittee to ensure that staff knew what was happening along the way."

Kim Bauhs

Kim Bauhs, an HR specialist at NIH since 2000 who served on the design team for the new structure, says NAPA helped.

"The task of the team was to lay out principles that would guide the development of — rather than produce — the actual organizational design," she explains. Considering several options, the team moved toward adopting a "three-legged stool model" that combines administrative support centers (to handle functions in which efficiency and process are critical), centers of expertise (where specialized knowledge serves the whole community in developing policies, resources and best practices), and business partnerships (consultative services to address any unique needs of individual ICs).

"When the organizational structure was presented to the HR community," Bauhs says, "these elements were represented in the new division structure. It seemed that the proposal struck a balance between the need to consolidate and the need to maintain a connection with our customers."

E Pluribus Unum

As early U.S. leaders no doubt discovered, the simple Latin phrase — e pluribus unum (English translation: out of many, one) — is complicated to implement. Reorganizers, working under a tight deadline, sought to make NIH's new HR as effective, efficient — and painless — as possible.

The reconstituted central OHR contains six divisions: information systems, program effectiveness, employee services and benefits, workforce management, employee relations and training, and human resources operations. Following feedback from dozens of HR focus groups, planners hope most employees experience a nearly invisible transition to the new structure. For example, even though personnel officers are no longer under the ICs, employees will still have a designated HR staff to handle their personnel issues. In other words, the paper trail for your step increase will still be ushered through official channels.

For staff who work in HR, however, the changes are substantial. An operations branch chief will be responsible for the HR issues of many more employees. Workloads may shift or expand; some workers will move to new locations. Some top-level professionals — many who have labored in the HR field for a number of years and had established themselves in key leadership posts — suddenly find themselves contemplating competition for the reduced number of lead roles in the slimmed-down OHR.

Nancy Bagley

"I think the biggest benefits of the reorganization will be the consistency in interpretation and application of HR policies and the opportunities for collaborations and information sharing among all of the HR specialists," says Nancy Bagley, formerly in NCI personnel for 15 years and now serving as a branch chief in the new Division of Human Resources Operations.

"Change is always a challenge," adds Bagley. "For those individuals who will not be placed in their first preference, it may be more of a challenge for them to adjust to their new team. Some will be physically moved, others will be performing new or different duties, and many will be working with unfamiliar people and programs. It's going to be important for the HR management team to work closely with staff during the transition period to help them through mentoring, retraining and also encouraging them to share their ideas and suggestions."

Chris Steyer, a 23-year federal employee who was serving as HR officer at NIAMS and is acting deputy director of the new OHR, sees several benefits in the unified structure.

"Currently each IC handles things differently and we have different procedures everywhere," she says. "There have been problems with that and with the new consolidation there should be more oversight while hopefully still maintaining close relationships with our customers. We hope to be able to draw on our combined strengths and knowledges more. We also will begin to think more corporately as an NIH rather than just as institutes. For example, recruiting for the 'NIH' rather than 'NCI,' which I think will market NIH and ultimately the ICs better."

Bagley agrees, "I believe this reorganization will bring NIH closer to achieving its mission by further developing our corporate image, which will help us in recruiting and retaining the best talent through our outreach efforts. We will be able to gather various IC ideas, share past successes and invent new approaches to recruiting and retaining the elite NIH scientific and administrative staff."

HR Staffers Step Up to the Challenge

As would be expected, reactions to the department's mandate have varied among HR staffers. Describing the brown bag sessions, web site and newsletter devoted to the reorganization, communications chief Thompson says that is why a great deal of effort was put into keeping everyone informed along the way: It's the workers ultimately who will determine how well the new OHR fares.

"This is going to require a lot of teamwork in order for it to be successful," she predicts. "A lot will depend on how employees work with new colleagues and new assignments. There will definitely be an adjustment period."

Cyrus Salazar

Cyrus Salazar, a former NIH summer intern who was seeking permanent placement just before the HR reorganization was announced, says he often heard the buzz about upcoming changes while interviewing. "Some warned me of entering a field that was destined to be consolidated," he recalls, "but I was interested in pursuing a career in human resources and once I met and interacted with those who I currently work with, my mind was made up. My initial reaction included feelings of disbelief and hopelessness, but as I began to learn more about the human resources processes and as I interacted with more personnel daily, I quickly learned that the consolidation would be beneficial overall. If we are to provide effective and efficient processes, the consolidation of specific functions cannot be overlooked."

Best Practices Revealed

As HR staffers brace for the next phase — interdepartmental consolidation — advice from employees offers comfort and encouragement for what fiscal year 2003 may hold.

Becky German

"Be as flexible as possible," suggests Becky German, an HR assistant at NIAMS with 19 years of federal service. "Keeping a positive outlook will help to accept change. No one likes to leave his or her 'comfort zone,' but sometimes change must take place for us to find our true direction."

As Bagley points out, "The consolidation is a huge task and will require everyone — HR staff and program staff — to work together to make it successful. There will be some bumps in the road, so patience and cooperation will be needed by everyone to overcome these obstacles. The best thing NIH can do is start planning now and not forget the human side in all of this."

Horwitz emphasizes that involving the HR community — the human element — in reorganization efforts is key and hopes the same strategy serves well for further restructuring down the road.

"Communicate all the time," she advises. "It is the most important action you can take. Be honest about what you know and don't know. Get input from all your stakeholders. It might take time upfront but it quickly helps in the design. Get assistance from those most affected by the reorganization."

In fact, Walker says one of his top goals is to improve communication and collaboration between the Division of Human Resources Operations and the other OHR divisions.

In trying to build an effective HR organization, Walker says he is reminded of something a former supervisor once told him: "This is not the National Institutes of Personnel Management. We derive tremendous benefit from our participation in a great humanitarian mission. We must not lose sight of why we are here and the contributions that we all make to further the NIH mission."

Veteran NIH'ers Chris Steyer (l) and Fred Walker are at HR's helm.

Rookie NIH'ers like Salazar as well as longtime NIH'ers German (c) and Thompson were called upon to make a quick transition in human resources go smoothly.

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