No One To Lose Job, But Work May Differ
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
No less than the wisdom of Solomon is required of NIH officials who are obliged to comply with an old federal policy given new urgency by the Bush administration: namely, that the government should not compete with private industry for services that the private sector can provide. The challenge at NIH is that almost half the workforce of 18,000 people fall into occupational categories that are commercial in nature, not inherently governmental. In order to comply with OMB Circular A-76 and the FAIR (Federal Activities Inventory Reform) Act of 1998, NIH must review up to half of the total of its potentially commercial positions in the next few years, and "outsource" those jobs that the private sector can do in instances where the company can provide the same goods or services that federal workers had been providing, at at least a 10 percent savings to Uncle Sam.
Charles E. "Chick" Leasure Jr., who is NIH deputy director for management and chief financial officer, is at the top of a major effort on the part of executive officers and other officials from all institutes and centers to review commercial activities throughout NIH and provide a fair comparison "apples to apples" of functions currently done inhouse that could conceivably be done more cheaply and just as well or better by the private sector.
This can be fearful news to the half of us who do work that is also done outside government. But Leasure has an armload of assurances for frightened federal workers: "First of all, the Secretary (of HHS) has said that everyone (currently federally employed) will have a job, whether contracted out or not. Second, just because jobs are studied does not mean that they will be contracted out we have to await the outcome of the study. If it turns out to be in the best interests of NIH, we'll pursue contracting."
The A-76 process began, conceptually, during the Eisenhower administration, explains Tom Fitzpatrick, who directs the commercial activities review team (CART) at NIH. It became policy, however, in 1965, when the Office of Management and Budget published its circular directing all agencies to assure that Uncle Sam wasn't taking jobs away from private industry. Successive administrations have put more and less emphasis on the policy, but President Bush has elevated competitive sourcing to one of the top five items on his President's Management Agenda (along with e-government, human capital management, budget and program integration), said Leasure. "This raises A-76 to another level."
NIH began responding to the initiative in fiscal year 2001, when it was directed to review 5 percent of its potentially commercial functions, or some 465 positions. Targets for FY 03 and 04 are 10 percent of the commercial total, or about 930 positions for each of those years. The review doesn't end until NIH has examined some 4,650 positions, or half the estimated 9,300 jobs that could potentially be outsourced.
Many jobs at NIH are already outsourced: "There are well over 3,000 contractors on the Bethesda campus every day," said Leasure, "and that doesn't include all of the construction workers." But NIH doesn't get credit for those in the current A-76 review, he cautioned; "We have to study today's workforce."
Certain jobs at NIH, Leasure explained, have almost always been done by contractors the people who cut the grass, run the cafeteria, and guard the campus as hired security. "We know there are functions at NIH that can, and should be, performed by contractors," he continued. "The challenge now is to find, 'What else?'"
Protected positions those deemed "inherently governmental" include setting program direction and obligating funds. Patient care, too, is protected, as is direct intramural research.
But that leaves seven broad functional areas ripe for review: information technology, personnel, general administrative, facilities and installation services, R&D, grants and finance. The process of review is time-consuming and sometimes repetitive.
The OMB tools used by reviewers were originally developed by the Department of Defense, observes CART's Fitzpatrick, and have had to be modified to apply accurately to civilian positions. The A-76 review process itself is undergoing modification, he said, which will determine how extensive the examination of each position must be (see sidebar).
Leasure acknowledges that it can be unnerving to learn that one's job is under review as a potentially commercial activity. "It's a complex deal, and hard for employees to understand," he said. "People want me to estimate what percentage of (NIH jobs) will be contracted out, and I can't answer. There's no historical precedent to go by.
"It's easy for me to understand why employees are concerned," he continued. "They may be retrained, moved or end up working for a contractor. Obviously these things can be unsettling to people. But I can't assure them until the studies are complete." Thus far, the printing function at ORS has been studied, soon to be followed by animal care, grants technical assistants, and the fire department; a recent all-hands email from Leasure details functions to be reviewed in FY 03 and 04.
Leasure sees an upside to a policy that forces the government to examine whether it is running a fiscally tight operation, but admits it means walking a knife-edge: "We shouldn't be wasting taxpayer money, but we also don't want to destroy the commitment and quality of work done by federal employees," he said. "(A-76) seems to me not totally a bad thing. It combines the best interests of NIH and the taxpayers. We can concentrate on the things that we do well. It forces us to get our own house in order, which is a side benefit of this exercise." He envisions potential savings as workers are retrained in areas where there is more demand for a particular skill.
Leasure chairs the steering committee in charge of A-76/FAIR at NIH, which is composed of representatives of the institutes and centers in areas such as EEO, personnel, information technology and contracts. Their goal is to apply consistency of criteria and methodology in all reviews. They have hired a private firm Warden Associates with expertise in this field.
Leasure is aware that many NIH employees perform multiple duties, and are not easily categorizable. "Most of us perform several functions, for example secretary and timekeeper. That person might also do some editorial assistant work, and maybe some travel and procurement. It's a very difficult process to determine how to fairly assign a job category, and to be as fair and judicious as possible.
"What we're trying to get is the best bang for the buck that's the common theme for both the government and private industry," Leasure summed up. "In an ideal situation, everybody wins."
He knows there are fears out in the workforce "that highly paid people who are at no risk personally are making decisions for people in some smoky back room," but insists he is only working toward goals elucidated by NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni; that in all dealings, NIH be transparent, proactive and accountable.
He laments, "I can't guarantee anybody anything. But I do assure you that we are not keeping any secrets. I feel kind of like (Mongomery County Police) Chief Moose (who oversaw the recent sniper investigation) I need to reassure NIH'ers that we are looking out for what's best for them. I know it's a tension-raising, emotional business. That's why it's critical that we do it right the first time...If we're good at what we do, we can benefit everyone. It won't be easy, but I think it can be done."
He repeats one of his management mantras: "Fair does not mean equal...At NIH, people don't fit into neat pigeonholes very well."
NIH expects to open an outplacement office, he said, for those who want to seek employment elsewhere, under the direction of Fred Walker, director of the Office of Human Resources. Leasure also foresees offers of early or optional retirement. But buyouts are not currently an option. Follow developments in the A-76/FAIR Act story as they unfold at http://A-76.nih.gov.
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