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First A-76 Victory Prompts Overhaul of Extramural Support
By Carla Garnett
On the Front Page...
On Sept. 24, NIH announced that it had prevailed over would-be contractors in the agency's first large A-76 competition. Now "to the victor go the spoils," as the tough job of implementing the winning "most efficient organization" (MEO) bid begins. An all-hands meeting was held on Oct. 7 to update employees and provide a sketch of the MEO, which will completely revamp the way NIH provides extramural administrative support services, beginning Mar. 31, 2004. First on the agenda, though, was Charles "Chick" Leasure, NIH deputy director for management and chief financial officer, who expressed his thanks to those who developed the winning proposal and to the NIH community at large for teamwork and support during the unfamiliar A-76 process.
"Despite the fact that we had never done something like this before," he said, "everybody pitched in and did a great job. That's why the outcome at least the tentative outcome ends up the way we like it to be...a new process that was designed by and for NIH employees. I think it's just remarkable given the circumstances and I think you all did a great job. I wish I could say this was the end of the story; many of you know it isn't. Competitive sourcing will continue to be an issue. That's why it was so critical that the first one be done so extremely well. I hope we can maintain the same level of involvement and commitment."
Leasure described the victory as tentative because the vendor who lost to NIH by default has the right to appeal the decision. A successful appeal could lead to a reopening of the competition, according to Tim Wheeles, who directs the NIH Competitive Source Program. In a competition after appeal, NIH would have to submit the same MEO, but by then competitors would have an advantage because details of NIH's proposal have been made public.
Citing the various policy guidelines including those for procurement and acquisition, human resources and personnel, as well as dictates for the A-76 process itself Leasure reminded attendees of the tremendous challenges the job reviews present. "Those of us at NIH that are involved in trying to figure how this is going to work are trying to balance a number of different sets of regulations and rules that don't necessarily all come together at any one time," he said.
Also not known yet, noted Wheeles, is what will become of the quotas established by the Office of Management and Budget. "You may have heard that OMB has backed off the quota requirements," he said, "but they have not gone away. The requirements for A-76 and the President's Management Agenda are still there. All that's happening now is that OMB is negotiating with individual departments about their quota requirements and we have been instructed by both the OMB and our department [HHS] to continue with NIH's [FY] 04 requirements even while renegotiations continue."
NIH's Winning Hand
Cautioning that the multi-hundred-page MEO bid had been sealed until results of the competition were announced, Wheeles explained that the document would have to be studied in-depth before all details of the proposal were fully known.
"We do not have all of the answers," he said. "We do have a plan."
Members from all three extramural areas program, review and grants management in the competition comprised the team that designed the MEO. NIDDK chief grants management officer and MEO cochair David Mineo explained the basic structure of the new "Office of Extramural Activities Support Services" proposed in the NIH bid. The new office will become the sixth component of the Office of Extramural Research; employees will report to the NIH deputy director for extramural research.
"Having been in the extramural side of NIH since 1979...and having been in many different institutes at NIH, I can say that there have been many different ways of doing business," Mineo acknowledged. "While each of us in organizations feel that our way is the best way, we are all NIH employees and must do the best for NIH. That's what the [MEO] design team was all about."
He said the proposal replaces a "decentralized stovepipe organization with a central services model to provide more efficient operations to NIH customers." The MEO establishes three hubs in the new office to centralize such common services as training, travel, acquisition of supplies and meeting management. Redundant activities within individual institutes and centers will be eliminated under the MEO, which proposes to take better advantage of information technology by enhancing use of electronic phonebooks and calendars.
Twenty-seven IC units have been divided into hubs A, B or C, based on several factors including size of the customer base and geography. For example, hub B will provide services to NIAID, NCCAM and six other ICs with large concentrations of employees working in the Rockledge rental properties. Hub A is focused on organizations such as NCI and NINDS with offices in the Executive Plaza area and hub C will handle customers such as FIC and NLM on the Bethesda campus. Each hub will have a manager, task leaders, employee supervisors, task unit team members as well as other hub staff who will be assigned to monitor quality assurance and workload management.
"The MEO was designed to be a more flexible organizational framework to work across division lines and area lines, and presumably provide more consistent responses," Mineo said, emphasizing that foremost among considerations was that NIH continue its tradition of delivering "high quality efficient customer services."
Plans for Placement
For months now, officials planning NIH's A-76 response have been stressing that changes will occur, whether or not the agency wins the competitions. In any event, the most dramatic changes, it was predicted, would take the form of reduction in the number of full-time equivalencies (FTEs). Before the MEO was developed, there were 909 FTEs handling the extramural areas to be competed. That number included an estimated 192 contract employees as well as positions that were vacant at the time. The MEO calls for 677 FTEs divided among the three hubs and a 4-person Office of Grants Support Services unit (632 people to perform tasks plus 45 people in lead, supervisory or director positions), Mineo explained.
Most of the jobs being eliminated involve contract staff, according to Bill Fitzsimmons, NIMH executive officer and acting director of NIH's Office of Strategic Management and Planning, who will also lead a 13-member team that will reconcile current staffing totals with those required for the MEO. Using pre-MEO figures, the number of displaced employees potentially would be about 40, he said, although he cautioned that this number could be higher depending on grade-level issues and a variety of other factors. One of the unknowns is the current FTE total, which has more than likely declined since the last count of affected workers as some retired, resigned or took other jobs during the review period.
"We all have a responsibility to make this work," Mineo concluded, "because not making it work does not mean going back to the way things were. The way things were is a thing of the past, and is not an opportunity for the future."
Chris Steyer, NIH deputy director of human resources, outlined governing principles that will be used to fill positions in the new OER framework, and to ensure fairness throughout the A-76 process any other competitions NIH wins.
"Essentially," she said, "we want to put the right people in the right jobs to meet the needs of the MEO and of the NIH."
In addition, Steyer reiterated that everyone would continue to have a job, as promised by HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson. Only candidates from among the affected employees will be considered for open positions. In other words, only workers whose jobs are under A-76 review can form the pool of applicants for MEO posts.
In addition, the HR team will first try to staff the MEO with lateral hires. For example, a grade 6 worker will be placed in a grade 6 job, if possible, and would not initially be eligible for a grade 7 opening. Employees will be asked for a statement of job and location preferences as well as a skill inventory (résumé) and references. Finally, key staff will be placed in coordination with an advisory committee.
The first step in placement will be to identify the new structure's functions and determine which employees will be affected by it. Next, new positions will be posted and placement consideration documents collected in a standard format. Then, the MEO will begin to be staffed from the highest grade level down.In Transition
Fitzsimmons discussed the Transition Center, which has been established for displaced employees. Career counseling has already been planned with a contract company, Vantage, Inc. Substantial funding for job training has been set aside, he noted. In addition, the center is in the process of acquiring space for 100 people in the Executive Plaza area. In answer to a question from the audience, he said that an employee could expect to spend no more than 12 to 18 months in the center before being assigned a position he or she would be required to accept.
Donning a Combined Federal Campaign cap at the conclusion of his remarks, Leasure said: "It seems to me to be an appropriate time now when we're all wondering where we're going to work in the next 6 months and what our jobs are going to be to remember those folks who don't have any job at all."
Also offering encouraging words at the session was Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, senior advisor to the NIH director, who served as the MEO independent review official. "I came into this not knowing exactly what I would find. I found that the [MEO] work group had put together a remarkably creative, workable, reliant not just most efficient, but also most effective plan. Still, you always have a bit of trepidation as you wait for the decision. I was absolutely delighted to learn that we had won. So, what does this mean? It means we have to change. That doesn't mean that what we did in the 1990s was bad or wrong. It was fine for the times, but this is what we need now. Let's all work together."
NIH'ers can view the meeting online in its entirety by visiting http://videocast.nih.gov/ and clicking on Past Events.
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