Putting good ideas into practice is not necessarily easy, especially when the good ideas involve changing the government's time-honored, or some might say hidebound, methods of doing business. Take the example of NIH's pilot project to give intramural scientists charge cards.
Even before any researchers got their hands on the cards, the project was receiving quite different receptions at the two institutes singled out as guinea pigs: cautious optimism at NCHGR and a wait-and-see attitude at NCI.
Although the charge cards - expected to arrive May 1 - had yet to materialize as of mid-May, scientists' various reactions to the charge card training sessions and instruction manuals indicate that how a "reinvention" is presented may be nearly as important as what changes are actually occurring.
Under the pilot program, NCI and NCHGR are each granted 15 charge cards. The VISA cards, which function along the payment lines of American Express cards and are issued by the Rocky Mountain BankCard System, allow scientists who've volunteered or been recruited and who've received a special half-day training course and delegation of authority to buy many types of supplies and equipment. There is a price cap of $2,500 per item, as well as a limit of $2,500 per order, unless a scientist undergoes an additional 80 hours of procurement training. There are no limits on the number of orders that can be placed per month, and the monetary ceilings on monthly purchases are determined by the individual institute.
As long as the basic guidelines are adhered to, NCI and NCHGR have considerable leeway to implement the project in the manner that best serves the needs of researchers at their own institutes. At NCI, scientists who volunteered or were asked to take part in the pilot were required to attend the half-day training session and received a 20-page general manual, along with a thicker, supplemental guide prepared by NCI administrators to refer to when using the card. At NCHGR, where all participants in the pilot are volunteers, scientists also had to undergo the same half-day training session and pick up a general manual, but they did not receive an institute-specific reference guide.
NCHGR officials said they felt that NCI's supplemental guide was very useful and will be used by NCHGR's administrative office. However, because the actual procurement of items was enough to make cardholders nervous, they chose to wait until later in the process to distribute the thicker guide to interested NCHGR cardholders.
"I didn't want to scare them off," explains Linda Adams, NCHGR's senior administrative officer. "I wanted to get scientists to start using the cards, rather than putting up barriers to their use. ... I wanted them to see what they can do with a charge card rather than what they can't do with it." In addition, Adams, who is a certified procurement officer, has a card that she can use to help NCHGR scientists buy items that cost more than $2,500.
Although there is a requirement that scientists check with mandatory sources before buying something with their charge cards, David Ledbetter, chief of NCHGR's Diagnostic Development Branch and a participant in the pilot program, says it really shouldn't take much checking if a researcher is using his or her card to buy routine supplies from a familiar source. "All it really takes is good judgment on the part of the scientist," says Ledbetter, noting that, in practice, charge card orders will probably be placed by the same procurement-savvy people who place paper orders - high-level technicians, lab secretaries, or administrative officers working in conjunction with the scientist.
"I think the real benefit of the card is for emergency purchases - to buy supplies or equipment that you need right away. I don't think the number of purchases made by charge card will be huge," says Ledbetter, who is one of the Intramural Reinvention Working Group's (IRWG's) representatives on the NIH-wide team that developed the charge card concept.
In contrast to NCHGR, where half of the principal investigators are taking part in the charge card pilot and where there is a waiting list for cards, NCI actually had two participants drop out of the pilot before it even began because of the procurement requirements placed on the cardholder for proper use of the card.
The charge card "is not the answer for all our procurement problems, particularly in view of the monthly reconciliation process," says Janice Romanoff, program administrative officer at NCI. According to Romanoff, NCI has requested relief from some of the more cumbersome requirements, such as advance clearance for certain purchases, and also asked for the use of "record of call" numbers so scientists and other cardholders can directly place orders of less than $2,500 through Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) vendors. However, it should be noted that IRWG was successful in working with the Office of Procurement Management to modify the draft charge card guidelines to allow the cards to be used to buy supplies from BPA vendors.
Although she and many other NCI scientists never received official notificiation of their institute's charge card pilot before the training course began, Claude Klee, chief of NCI's Laboratory of Biochemistry, says that out of curiosity, she thumbed through a colleague's inch-thick instruction manual. "It's not the sort of book you'd like to look at," she says. "Procurement officers might spend an afternoon reading this book - that's their job, but a scientist shouldn't have to."
Nevertheless, Klee says that she thinks that streamlining the NIH procurement process is essential. "A charge card system should be able to help do that if it is implemented correctly. It has tremendous potential," she says, adding that input from scientists is a crucial element in the successful implementation of any administrative change.
Ledbetter says he thinks that part of the difference between NCIs
and NCHGR's approaches to the charge card pilot may be the differing
attitudes of the two institutes' scientific staffs. "Many
NCHGR scientists were academic scientists who've only recently
been transplanted to NIH. We don't like the government procurement
process, and charge cards are something that we were used to in
the outside world,"
On the other hand, Ledbetter says NCI has more veteran government researchers who've learned to efficiently navigate the existing procurement process and who would rather not be burdened by the added personal responsibility that comes with a charge card, such as reconciling a monthly charge card statement with supplies and equipment received.
However, NCI's Klee disagrees. "It's not the scientists who are different between the two institutes, it's the administrators who are different," Klee says, adding that she and her colleagues would gladly take responsibility for a charge card if that would make it quicker and easier to get supplies and equipment for her lab.
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