NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH:
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, PART II
In the March-April issue, I outlined likely physical changes at NIH over the next 10 years. Now, I want to give you some idea of how the administrative changes necessitated by "downsizing and streamlining" will affect our day-to-day scientific activities.
My assumptions are the same as before: the intramural budget will remain relatively stable, but, given a 4% inflation rate for biomedical research costs, some estimates predict a loss of 5-20% in "real" funds over the next five years. More draconian reductions are possible if the NIH budget as a whole is actually cut. We are currently under a presidential mandate to shrink the size of our work force by reducing full-time equivalent (FTE) positions by making major cuts in administrative positions such as personnel and procurement. Noting that most of our FTE cuts from 1992 to 1995 have come from the intramural program because of rapid staff turnover in slots such as staff fellows, visiting scientists, and experts, the NIH leadership intends to limit FTE reductions in intramural scientific staff to 5% between now and 1999, assuming that no further FTE cuts are mandated.
Several principles are being used to guide downsizing decisions. First, the HHS Secretary has indicated that reductions in force (RIFs) will be avoided in meeting downsizing goals. However, judicious cuts in resources available to lower-priority programs will be made, as determined by the Boards of Scientific Counselors' reviews, scientific opportunities, and health-research demands. Across-the-board cuts, such as could be achieved through simple attrition, are a poor management tool and, although superficially equitable, are intrinsically unfair and do not reward merit. Second, before we cut scientific programs, we must make our administration as efficient as possible. This entails reducing redundancy and eliminating unnecessary rules, as well as promoting automation wherever possible. But simply converting cumbersome administrative processes to computerized versions of the same red tape makes little sense; streamlining demands that the processes themselves be changed before automation occurs. Finally, we can use the opportunity afforded by the reinvention mandate to restructure lines of authority to improve the scientific work environment.
These outside pressures and internal demands have prompted NIH to establish three major reinvention groups: a reinvention "laboratory" that is restructuring the extramural grants process; a reinvention working group that is trying to eliminate administrative obstacles to intramural research; and a reengineering oversight group that is seeking to streamline a broad spectrum of administrative processes including procurement, finance, proeperty, travel, and personnel. I head the intramural working group with MaryAnn Guerra, executive officer at NHLBI, and I lead the reeingineering oversight group with Michael Goldrich, deputy director and executive officer at NIAID, and William Risso, deputy director at DCRT. In addition, the reengineering group has support from Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, a contractor with experience in both government and industry "downsizing."
The intramural working group, which has members from the scientific and administrative communities, has requested that HHS designate the intramural research program a "reinvention laboratory." If granted, such designation would give NIH more freedom to remove administrative impediments to science. The group has also issued its initial report covering a gamut of concerns ranging from serious problems to "pet peeves" of scientists and administrators. If fully realized, the group's plan would slash the number of steps involved in many administrative processes, reduce the need for many administrative personnel in "control" positions at both NIH and HHS headquarters, and lift obstacles to efficient hiring, travel, purchasing, and bill paying. Unfortunately, many of the proposed changes hinge on the passage of legislation. For example, the Clinton administration's bill to overhaul the civil-service system is probably necessary to shift NIH into a "pay band" system, which allows broad salary scales for different job descriptions rather than the current complex system of multiple grades, each requiring extensive documentation. However, it may still be possible to achieve some of these goals as a "demonstration" project.
Another special focus of the intramural working group is improving procurement processes. With the leadership of Leamon Lee, director of the Office of Administration, and Francine Little, director of the Office of Financial Management, we have begun a pilot of a charge-card system (see May-June issue, page 21). The group also plans to advocate and monitor the development of a seamless electronic ordering system that would enable researchers to shop for scientific supplies, place orders, keep purchasing records, and approve payment via desk-top computers. Other administrative changes are being spearheaded by the NIH reengineering group with advice from Lockheed Martin. Subgroups have been established in areas of special interest such as purchasing, accounts payable, and time-keeping, and major recommendations are in the offing (see May-June issue, page 1).
Although many of the anticipated changes will save money and time, if successful, most will be largely invisible to scientists. However, other changes will have a profound effect on how scientists conduct business at NIH.
In some cases, reinvention efforts will lead to major shifts in authority. The goal is to delegate authority to the lowest possible level--that is, give more power to the scientist in the trenches. Personnel decisions should be made by lab or branch chiefs or other senior scientific personnel who do the hiring. Procurement should be done primarily by the scientists who need the items. There are two significant drawbacks to these changes. First, with increased authority comes increased responsibility. Scientists using the new systems must be familiar with appropriate personnel and procurement regulations. Second, a number of administrative positions will become obsolete under the new systems, and this number may be well above the projected loss of FTEs through attrition.
How will we solve these problems? One obvious answer is to redeploy centralized "control" personnel now within the institutes and the Office of the Director to the labs, where they can perform administrative and support duties. This would enhance the intramural program's emphasis on health science and scientists. On the other hand, just as administrators would need to learn more about scientific needs, scientists would also have to learn more about management. Some will resist these changes, arguing that the strength of the intramural program lies in researchers' freedom to concentrate on the creative aspects of science with minds uncluttered by mundane matters. But, with appropriate lab support based on the redeployment and retraining of administrative personnel, I believe we can have the best of both worlds. Let me know what you think.
Deputy Director for Intramural Research