by BPRC Staff
Have you ever felt like tearing your hair out after trying to make your way through the bureaucratic maze involved in ordering research supplies and equipment? How about filling out a time card or trying to subscribe to your favorite scientific journal? If so, you are not alone, and your cries are no longer falling upon deaf ears.
"NIH is a terrific place to work, interacting with some very knowledgeable people," says Michael Cashel, head of the Section on Molecular Regulation in NICHD's Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, but the research milieu would be even better if administrators could eliminate some of the little "day-to-day things that unnecessarily raise the frustration level" for scientists. NIDCD Scientific Director Jim Battey concurs: "Our major product is research; scientists want as much free time as possible to perform scientific research and spend a minimum amount of time with cumbersome processes. I realize that since we are funded with tax dollars, there are some legal limitations placed on us, that we must live with. If we could just remove some of the additional layers of oversight and bureaucracy placed upon us, we could better accomplish our research tasks."
A key part of the monumental job of turning such visions of a less bureaucratic, more scientist-friendly NIH into a workable reality lies with the recently formed NIH Business Process Reengineering Center (BPRC).
Last fall, a three-year, $2 million Business Process Reengineering (BPR) contract for overhauling the administrative processes that support all of NIH was awarded to Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Md., which has done similar work in the past for the Department of Defense. A well-established concept in both private industry and management circles, BPR involves
Accounts Payable BPR team. From left, Bob Schaller, Tony Sambataro, Mary Saah, Anita Bowrin, Kathleen Hall, Joyce Lee, Deon Johnson, Francine Little, Jeanne DeAngelis, Marguerite Kendall, Harold Varmus, Laura McNay, George Dobenecker, Lynda Eckard, and Bob Davidson. Absent were the team's leader, Penny Strong, who has retired, and Sandra Logan, who was traveling.
The government's often Byzantine payment, or "accounts payable," process is a sore point among many scientists. For example, Cashel says, "Recently, some subscriptions to key journals were canceled because, in the supplier's opinion, the subscription bills were not promptly paid. It was extremely difficult to obtain these journals by the informal network. As a result, some of our smaller libraries have unfillable holes."
NIH Associate Director for Administration Leamon Lee attributes the subscription problems to the fact that the company providing NIH's subscription services, Faxon Co. of Westwood, Mass., was recently bought by another firm that requires advance payment from NIH before journals are delivered. NIH administrators have been told that the missing journal issues will arrive eventually, albeit late. As for recent complaints about a shortage of supplies at NIH self-service stores, Lee blames the consolidation of warehouses and changes in ordering systems for tying up the delivery of stock to significantly those stores. Lee adds that both problems appear solvable, and journal subscriptions and delivery to self-service stores should soon be sharply improved.
To avert a repeat of such problems and to further speed the delivery of research supplies to scientists, Office of Financial Management (OFM) Director Francine Little decided to sponsor the first BPR team in Accounts Payable. "While there are some regulations that control our activities (i.e., the Prompt Pay Act), the team is looking at ways to ensure we pay our invoices within a 25 to 30 day window," Little says. "This means more money will be available for NIH research activities because prompt payment ensures receipt of discounts from certain key vendors. Also, vendors who get paid promptly are more than eager to supply free journals, catalogs, etc., to our scientific community. This ensures that the scientists receive the most current information on the most current technology available. Ideally, we would like to supply one-stop shopping to all our customers so that any problems can be resolved in a timely fashion."
Currently, 30 technicians at OFM must process and pay more than 600,000 invoices a year. "Being able to redirect the efforts of those men and women will result in a more positive, highly motivated work group, ensuring prompt, courteous service," Little says.
For their progress and readiness to tackle tough issues, members of the Accounts Payable BPR team were recognized at a special OFM all-hands meeting on April 12. Before presenting team members with their awards, NIH Director Harold Varmus stated, "I am extremely proud of OFM for taking the lead in the BPR effort. Accounts Payable was the prototype and the model for all future BPR activities. I really appreciate the effort expended."
When it comes to small purchases, Battey says he thinks authority for procurement needs to be brought to the lowest level allowed by law, he hopes as low as a technician or research scientist. Cashel also supports the streamlining of small purchases, calling for some type of credit card system "that would allow direct purchases by scientists of any item costing less than $300, with minimal restrictions."
Some short-term fixes are already being implemented, according to Lee, who sponsored both the Small Purchases and Property Management BPR teams. "I have already vowed to cut time for acquiring items costing $2,500 or less from a period of 10 to 30 days to two days by removing unnecessary steps in the clearance process. This has been done by having the ordering of an item and the written confirmation of clearance determination run in parallel," Lee says. "Another short-term fix now allows requests for next year's small purchases to be input in September instead of the old July requirement."
Lee also notes that the credit card pilot [see page 22, January-February issue of The NIH Catalyst] has already begun at NCI and NCHGR. In addition to these initial steps toward simplifying the purchase of scientific reagents and equipment, Lee says the Property Management and Small Purchases BPR teams are now trying to work out long-term fixes for even greater improvement.
Time and Attendance
"When someone comes into the laboratory from outside [such as a new postdoc], they find many of our rules unbelievably complicated," Cashel says. Although the NICHD molecular biologist was not specifically referring to NIH's methods of keeping time and attendance, no doubt that process -- which determines how and what people get paid -- is a part of that confusion.
"Resources currently used to operate within this time-keeping process could be better used to support research, which is what we are all about, anyway," says Richard Drury, director of the Division of Human Resource Systems and head of the Time and Attendance BPR team. Characterizing NIH's current methods of keeping time and attendance as "a 1930 system," Drury says, his team is "willing to take some risks" to streamline the process so it better meets the needs of 21st century science.
For his part, Battey would like to see a couple other things come to pass as part of NIH's business reengineering effort: a simplified personnel system that would make it easier to get postdocs in the lab and quicker travel-approval procedures, especially for international trips. Battey adds that a "retrospective review" of travel might save some time over what he calls the current "prospective review process."
What can other scientists do to make sure that their voices are heard and they receive maximum benefit from the BPR teams? The best approach is to participate is as a team member. Although teams are limited to eight to 10 people, at least one scientist has been invited to participate on each panel. As the primary "customer" in NIH's administrative framework, scientists provide vital feedback to other team members concerning what's urgent, important, and needs fixing from the viewpoint of the research community. The time spent in team activities can be significant -- two to four hours per week for approximately six months -- but the lasting gains made in the overall quality of scientific life at NIH should be well worth the individual investment. If a scientist who is not a team member would like to offer insights or suggestions on improving NIH administrative processes, he or she can contact the BPR Center (594-4923) for information on whom to contact. Researchers can also make their views known to their administrative officers, who receive periodic updates on the efforts of BPR teams.
"This is a time of excitement if we can streamline many of the frustrating procedures and policies," Cashel says. "Things are progressing, and the efforts of many individuals are heartening."
BPRC at a Glance
Contacts: Bob Schaller and Bob Davidson
Location: Building 15, Room F-1
Resources: Information on becoming a member of a Business Process Reengineering (BPR) team and on how to contact the scientific members of BPR teams.