T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T      J U L Y  –  A U G U S T   2003

by Nicole Kresge

Questions about the A-76—competitive outsourcing—process, NIH security, and a one-page addendum to employee performance contracts dominated the hour-long Town Hall meeting convened June 18 by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni.

The volume of e-mail about A-76 received in advance of the meeting reflected a fairly high degree of concern among NIH employees that their jobs were suddenly on the line, and Zerhouni had enlisted William T. Fitzsimmons, director of the NIMH Office of Resource Management and a member of the A-76 Steering Committee, to present an overview of the situation.

A-76 may strike some as a new concept, Fitzsimmons said, but it’s actually been around since the Eisenhower years. The rationale behind it, he said, is that "if it’s in the yellow pages—if it’s something that you can contract out for and it’s not part of your basic mission—then it’s not the business of the government to compete with business." Thus, A-76 requires that for positions that have been classified as commercial-competitive, a bid must be prepared that contractors can compete for against the government.

To comply with the President’s Management Agenda, NIH had to examine its workforce of 18,000 and determine which employees are doing jobs that could be done by a private contractor. It determined that about half of its workforce consists of "commercial employees."

Between 2002 and 2005, NIH will have to open 50 percent of these commercial-competitive positions to competition with the private sector. This year’s competitions are in Facilities Management and Extramural Administrative Support jobs, for which proposals from the private sector are now competing with proposals from the current government staffs. The results should be known by late September, Fitzsimmons said, adding that federal employees have prevailed in most such competitions held so far in other agencies. However, even when employees do win, there may be job losses. NIH will find places for employees who lose their current jobs, he said.

Zerhouni expressed confidence that the NIH workforce—outstanding in his opinion—would come out ahead in the competitions.

Less than sanguine facilities management employees, however, said they felt they were placed at a competitive disadvantage by the federal hiring freeze, which prevents government managers from replacing people who have left, while private competitors are under no such constraints and can bid for a project at full workforce strength. A question on whether veterans’ preference, seniority, or awards would be factors in what might be a scramble to keep current jobs could not readily be answered.

On NIH security, Robert Desimone, NIMH scientific director and chair of the Community Advisory Board on Security, reported that the group had developed the "First Principles of Security": 1) all the government rules and regulations will be followed, (2) protection against weaponized vehicles will be the highest priority, (3) employees will be treated differently from visitors, and (4) the application of security procedures has been changed so they run more smoothly.

The next stage of emergency preparedness is being implemented, he said, including shelter-in-place guidelines, evacuation plans, and a recently purchased NIH emergency broadcast radio system. Operational plans for the "post-fence environment" and the new Visitors’ Center are also in the works.

Several questioners focused on a new one-page addendum to job performance plans that requires that employees commit themselves to achieving specific HHS program and management objectives. What was the intent of this new requirement? How would they be implemented into job descriptions? What would be the consequences of refusing to sign the pledge?

Mike Rosenthal, of Human Resources, noted that, like A-76, this job-performance addendum came out of the President’s Management Agenda. The employee’s signature, he said, would reflect acknowledgment of the goals; supervisors will work with employees to incorporate those objectives applicable to their jobs. As for the consequences of not signing, he said, NIH management would deal with that issue.

These and other issues will continue to be addressed, Zerhouni said at the close of the meeting. One forum for this will be a "Director’s Column" in The NIH Record.

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