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Vol. LIX, No. 15
July 27, 2007
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'Better. Stronger.'
Austin Project Seeks to Refresh Human Resources

"We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make him better than before — better, stronger, faster."

It's only right that human resources' Austin Project takes its name from a TV show about a bionic makeover. That just about sums up the superhuman task NIH HR has set for itself. Remember the premise of the Six Million Dollar Man? Main character Steve Austin, an astronaut who suffers a near-fatal crash, hovers between life and death when the show's opening lines above are voiced. Some 30 years later, NIH is voicing similar makeover ideas about its personnel structure. "Austin," the most recent in a series of HR remodeling projects, has been fast-tracked since January.

Out of the Ashes

It's been more than 5 years since NIH-and every other HHS agency-underwent a consolidation mandated by the department. The goal was to make personnel processes more consistent across agencies. Orders were to shrink the number of HR offices department-wide from 40 to 4. The reduction concept alone would prove Herculean. By itself, NIH had 25 HR offices-nearly one for each institute and center. About 450 FTEs (full-time equivalencies, in HR-speak) worked in the 25 offices before consolidation. By late 2002, NIH was down to 350 HR professionals. Some workers had retired earlier than planned. Some had taken new jobs outside the HR field. Others had been reassigned to departmental HR roles. By fall 2003, HHS had set a maximum 256 FTEs for NIH.

In addition to trying to manage the same workload with fewer workers, HR was also changing its basic structure. NIH felt the impact of this foundation shift almost immediately. No longer were HR employees reporting to individual ICs; now everyone belonged to a central NIH Office of Human Resources. Many had been moved from their traditional seats among other IC administrative staff to HR hubs-some off campus. Not only had quantity dropped, but also quality had slipped noticeably-particularly in customer service areas. Veteran HR workers, whose institutional knowledge and experience were invaluable, were quickly disappearing due to attrition. Complaints were high. Morale was low.

"ICs were definitely hurt by the loss of people who were seasoned, people who knew their staff," explained Phil Lenowitz, OHR deputy director.

NIH had contracted with the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to help with consolidation. By 2004, NAPA had studied the situation. As a result, NIH added 40 to 60 FTEs back to human resources. It wasn't enough. In 2005, between August and November, 75 people were hired, according to OHR Director Christine Major. Later, HHS relaxed the ratios it had placed on agency human resources. NIH immediately orchestrated a corporate recruitment effort that was part of the "Phoenix Project" (named for the mythological bird that resurrects itself from ashes).

"Fall in Love with NIH," a campaign not only to attract new workers, but also to keep current employees from leaving, began. A 2-day orientation with tours of the Clinical Research Center and visits to the Children's Inn sought to infuse new HR staffers with the NIH mission.

"Since the consolidation, we've been concentrating on rebuilding," acknowledged Major, who explained that though workers were rapidly joining NIH, the problems weren't being resolved quickly. "These were new people, people who needed to be trained."

L enowitz said improving HR involves more than filling holes in staff. "One big factor was that the folks who came in didn't have the NIH culture," he said. "They had never sat with the IC people they were trying to help. You need to understand our science and what we do."

Austin Is Born

In fall 2006, when Major was officially named to head OHR, efforts to re-staff were well under way. Phoenix II shortly followed its namesake. OHR's new administration decided on an outreach plan to find out exactly where problems still existed. The Austin Project was born, garnering experience and expertise from nearly every NIH sector-administrative, scientific and managerial. Through a survey to executive officers, in discussions held with focus groups and in meetings with top NIH staff-including the director, principal deputy, deputy director for management and the steering committee-Austin revealed one specific HR area where IC complaints continued to collect: the Client Services Division.

According to findings by Austin work groups, CSD is the area "most identifiable with pre-consolidation" and "most relied upon for day-to-day HR." The division is seen as the "face" of human resources by most respondents. At survey time, two-thirds of HR's 360 or so FTEs worked for CSD; the majority had been moved off campus. Used to be a manager could just drop in next door to see what the status was on a new job posting, or a recent promotion. You could chat up your HR specialist in the hallways practically every day, if needed. But HR "face time" had disappeared during consolidation.

"Managers have felt very removed from the human resources folks," said Bill Fitzsimmons, former NIMH executive officer and Austin team member. "There is a lot of work that gets done in informal settings-waiting for the elevator, for example. When [CSD] moved, they weren't even in the same buildings with us anymore. The human resources people used to be part of the team. That's hard to do when the HR staff is not in on the decision making. We're trying to rebuild that team relationship."

"I have seen HR go through the reorgs and things seem to be going back to the way it was," agreed Debbie Martin, an HR team leader for the past 2 years who has worked in NIH human resources for 17 years. "When I first started, we were sitting with our ICs. When the consolidation happened, they pulled us from the ICs and put most of us off site. Now after a few years we are beginning the Austin project and we are having HR teams sitting on site with the ICs again. My group was one of the first to go back to sitting with the ICs full time. We have noticed a better communication with managers and it has been nice to have the face-to-face contact again."

Putting all of HR in one place did offer some benefits, Lenowitz said. "Co-location led to HR staff being able to learn from each other. They are able to work together on projects and coverage of areas. It's also easier to shift resources when we're all together."

"You gain efficiency," Major explained, "but you lose the connection."

A Happy Medium

Austin's challenge now is to find a middle ground between total consolidation and complete IC independence. A bionic task, certainly. However, planners already have developed a strategy with new policies and objectives:

Increased IC involvement-Institutes and centers will participate in selecting client services staff, for example. Also, IC clients will have a role in rating the performance of CSD staff on issues such as responsiveness and accessibility. OHR will rate CSD staff on such concepts as technical proficiency and use of automated systems.

Improved IC access to HR services - Some CSD staff will move back into offices closer to IC administrative staff. Others might increase onsite visits to ICs.

The whole of Austin boils down to "mutual accountability," Major said. Rebuilt HR combines the best aspects of past human resources models with lessons learned during consolidation. There's not much time to roadtest the new Austin model, though. The next wave of uncertainty is slated for fall 2007: NIH human resources will undergo an A-76 review. OHR will have to reinvent itself again, this time to compete with human resource contractors for the Most Effective Organization title. A successful Austin, Major said, will lay the groundwork for NIH employees to win.

"Our mission-the whole reason we're here - has always been to recruit and retain the best employees for NIH," Lenowitz stressed. "Everything we do is related to that."

"We really want to do the best we can to help the NIH mission," Major concluded, "We want to be partners and Austin is just one step."

A Client-Side View
Human Resources 'Improving, but Not There Yet'

Rebecca Kelley, director of administration for the NIH Office of Extramural Research, was one of the first to admit that centrally locating the HR staff was not working well for her organization.

"The physical location of our HR support team so far away from OER staff posed enormous communication and logistical challenges," she said. "Regular meetings were helpful, but not an optimal venue for explaining daily programmatic issues that have HR considerations. Classification, for example, has been one of the biggest challenges and concerns. For OER, the process has improved and we are hopeful that with recent changes in our HR support team structure, it will continue to do so."

As senior manager for the largest MEO, or most efficient organization, at NIH, Kelley knows a thing or two about rebuilding. After all, the Division of Extramural Activities Support is one of three under her purview, so she's already been through the results of an A-76 process and one of the most extensive re-engineering activities in NIH's recent history. Her first tip to others in a similar situation? Strategic thinking is key.

"In many cases, it's all about culture," she advised. "You've got to step back and take a good look at yourselves. Put yourself in the customer's position- in their culture. got to partner with those you support to improve the service you provide, and educate one another on needs and limitations."

Kelley said for her organization, HR's proximity to the rest of the staff was paramount. In fact, she set aside furnished office space for their entire HR team to come back and work alongside OER employees again.

"We now engage them in our staff meetings and office activities," Kelley said. "We want them to become a greater part of the fabric of OER."

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