OPM racks up wins and losses

HHS approached the Personnel Automation Council in 1993 with a plan to let employees
enter discretionary changes themselves. These changes now account for as much as 45
percent of the workload in government payroll and personnel offices.

 "Instead of just doing it here, we looked for partners to go
governmentwide," Doupont said. "We got about 10 agencies to start with."

 Another 10 organizations joined as a consortium of small agencies: the Commodity
Futures Trading Commission, the Farm Credit Administration, the Federal Communications
Commission, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Merit Systems Protection Board,
the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Labor Relations Board, the Office of
Government Ethics, the Small Business Administration and the Smithsonian Institution.

 The project never had its own budget. Instead, HHS arranged interagency agreements
and funneled money through the Office of Personnel Management's Employment 
Services Office. The Macon, Ga., group developed the Employee Express prototype.

 The Employment Services Office has "always been a leader in technology,"
said program manager Rhonda P. Wood. It began using telephones and touch-screen kiosks to
disseminate federal employment listings back in the mid-1980s. OPM relied on these earlier
efforts as a basis for the Employee Express database design.

 The kiosks offered a secure computer interface, but "we felt at the time that
PCs were not doable," Doupont said.

 Many federal employees in 1994 did not have PCs, and there was little communication
within many agencies, let alone among them. At that point, the Internet was not a viable

 Alliance Systems Inc. of Dallas assembled the hardware for the project. For
Touch-Tone callers, it equipped MS-DOS-based 486 PCs from Trenton Terminals Inc. of Utica,
N.Y., with four telephone cards each from Dialogic Corp. of Parsipanny, N.J.

 Altogether, these PCs accommodate 100 incoming lines, accounting for about 80
percent of Employee Express traffic. Voice of America personnel recorded the telephone

 The remaining 20 percent of Employee Express traffic comes in from the kiosks, which
contain Dell Computer Corp. Pentium PCs and 17-inch touch-screen monitors from MicroTouch
Systems Inc. of Methuen, Mass.

 "Everything is resident on the kiosk PCs," Doupont said. "We dial up
at night to pick up the transactions they have made."

 OPM downloads changes to the kiosks using Close-Up Host & Remote 6.0 from
Norton-Lambert Corp. of Santa Barbara, Calif. The kiosk software, developed with the
Microsoft FoxPro database manager, stores the day's data, which OPM merges with the
telephone data and transmits to each agency for processing. Agencies return updated
information to OPM, which maintains it in xBase databases.  

One reason Employee Express got running so quickly is that it does not have as many
functions as a standard personnel and payroll system. It is simply a front end with nine
different interfaces to nine types of agency systems. It passes data to them in standard
xBase form, and the agencies reformat it for internal use.

 To design the desktop PC access program for Employee Express, OPM's developers chose
the World Wide Web over a bulletin board system.

 Why? Because Internet access through LANs is becoming more common than desktop
modems for BBS access, Doupont said.

 The forthcoming Web site will require each PC user to have a Web browser with a
socket-layer protocol to encrypt data between the Web server and the PC. 

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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