E-folders let State workers access HR files anywhere

New electronic personnel folders are helping the State Department meet the strictures of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act and Bush administration demands to integrate human resources systems.

The electronic official personnel folders, which became available to all employees in January, will save State about $1 million per year in handling and fees for delivering paper records to posts around the world.

'We have 20,000 employees, 9,000 of them overseas,' said Douglas D. Townsend, branch chief for policy and reporting in State's Human Resources Bureau. 'They each have an official folder with their SF-50 forms, their beneficiaries, their health benefit and Thrift Savings Plan elections, and their performance ratings. But those who are overseas couldn't readily see the paper files.'

He called it a logistics nightmare to route and track the folders to employees around the world. The department modernized some of that paper handling before the year 2000 with the Global Employment Management System, which tailored HR software from PeopleSoft Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., to store records in an Oracle8i database management system.

But GEMS deals only with SF-50 notifications of personnel action, not the rest of an employee's paperwork. The SF-50s, however, get the most frequent scrutiny'not only by Foreign Service selection boards but by employees themselves. Workers stay in line for promotion or tenure by making sure their folders include details about their most recent appraisals, awards and training.

'The Foreign Service holds employees accountable for valid personal information,' said Peter Keys, chief of the Application Development Branch. 'If there's a dispute about a file, the onus is on the employee.'

And there are far more personnel actions per year'90,000'than there are employees.
GEMS solved the problem of briefing senior officials who travel to Washington periodically to sit on selection boards. At their convenience, they can study the online records of all employees eligible for promotions.

'It's up or out, like the military,' Keys said.

In the future, State wants these boards to hold virtual meetings 'with conferencing technology, so we don't have to keep moving people around,' Keys said. That hasn't happened yet, however.

The selection board members are given temporary pass codes to the electronic folders while they serve.

Those who are promoted by the boards get e-mail notices of their updated SF-50s, which they can view in Adobe Portable Document Format through the HROnline portal on State's OpenNet intranet.

The department redirected its PeopleSoft print software to display the SF-50s online.

Besides promotion records, 'if you've been with the department for 15 or 20 years you might not remember whom you named as your beneficiaries,' or the names might have changed, said Lisa Chichester, chief of the Systems Development Division.

'We like to think people are responsible for their own destinies,' she said.

That was why the branch chiefs wanted records in the GEMS database, generated on the fly at user request, to merge with the paper records as electronic folders.

State officials worked with Integic Corp. of Chantilly, Va., to render TIFFs of paper records in Integic's e.Power automation engine. Any employee with a Web browser anywhere can view his or her folder over the intranet.

State had to merge TIFFs and PDFs in the same application for delivery, Keys said.

The resulting binary large objects are stored for security in the Oracle database on department servers in Washington, rather than residing on individual file servers. 'We're looking to move to Oracle9i in the near future so we're not too far behind the curve,' Townsend said.

Chichester said State held pilots 'before we went worldwide with the SF-50s. Everyone had access as of January.'

The move reduced not only handling costs but also storage duplication at the larger embassies. 'Anyone can reach the central repository,' Keys said.

Nightly backups of changes and full weekly backups with off-site storage are standard procedure, Townsend said.

Chichester said retirement records will be added next.

'We have to capture the TSP and medical documents,' she said. The retirement workflow module will link to the Foreign Affairs Retirement and Disability System for pay calculations. A future travel module also could track travel orders and changes of station, Chichester said.

'Once we finish in HR, we will route the retirement e-folders to our Retirement Disbursement Division in Charleston, S.C.,' she said. 'We now send paper folders by Federal Express, but the retirement workflow module will eliminate that.'

Chichester said the electronic folders have drawn many favorable comments from State employees, who perceive that 'we're providing more information to them' because it is easier to retrieve.

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