NIH takes attendance online

NIH takes attendance online

Upgraded timekeeping system helps agency manage federal leave policies

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

To replace an aging time and attendance system, the National Institutes of Health gave an intranet face-lift to client-server software originally developed for the National Science Foundation.

NIH, the government's lead medical research agency, has increased its productivity with the new system, which has rectified some problems caused by the former system and helps managers deal with complicated federal timekeeping rules.

Filling out a time card or a leave request is an incidental activity that takes on great importance if the paycheck comes out wrong, said Richard A. Drury, NIH's director of human resource technologies.

The health agency's previous time and attendance system, which ran on a standalone PC, was 'as clunky as you can imagine,' Drury said. It simply replicated standard paper forms.

At the end of each two-week pay period, the old system loaded the data onto a diskette that was shipped off for payroll processing. Employees found out the hard way when they weren't paid for the hours they had worked, Drury said.''No matter what you think your agency's core mission is, if your employees aren't getting paid, then you haven't got a mission anymore,' Drury said. 'Your mission is timekeeping.'

In 1994, a study of the system called it a productivity drain, he said. The study looked at off-the-shelf time card software but found none suitable for federal use, he said.

The trouble with adapting commercial software for federal timekeeping, according to Drury, is that the private sector has fewer rules governing personal leave. 'There is no more complex time arena than the federal sector, we discovered,' he said.

More than 40 types of federal leave exist because over the years Congress has layered new leave laws on top of existing ones.

'If you can put those rules in software so that people don't have to carry them around in their heads, you automatically improve the quality of the system,' Drury said.

NIH employees can request leave by filing a form using their Web browsers and the Integrated Time and Attendance System, which NSF developed.

Out of the crowd

When NIH officials examined six or seven systems used by other agencies, NSF's Integrated Time and Attendance System (ITAS) stood out because it implements timekeeping by exception.

It knows workers' regular schedules, and at the end of each pay period, it presumes they worked their normal shifts unless a supervisor approved a change.

NIH liked ITAS' networking and platform-independent features. 'Of course, it didn't hurt that it was already a piece of federal software,' Drury said.

In the mid-1990s, American Management Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va., developed the client-server ITAS to replace NSF's legacy timekeeping system, said George Schindler, vice president of the company's technology solutions group.

NIH and AMS programmers worked together to modify the NSF version of ITAS to accommodate more employees and greater diversity. NIH has 17,000 workers, compared with NSF's 1,400.

NIH officials wanted a simple, automated way for employees to send leave requests directly to their managers, and they wanted it to happen through a Web browser.

'It's just plain foolish to implement a traditional fat client-server application in this day and age if you can do it on the Web,' Drury said. 'There are huge savings in maintenance if you don't have fat clients littering every desktop in the agency.'

ITAS' features help supervisors manage time and attendance. For example, a manager can view an individual's leave request in the context of the whole workgroup to see how others would be affected.

ITAS resides behind the NIH firewall, although certain ports are unblocked for access by traveling employees and telecommuters, Drury said. Passwords and 128-bit encryption provide security.

A sign-in, sign-out feature is useful for some service and medical workers who come in over weekends and record the exceptions to their usual schedules. For verification, ITAS tracks the IP addresses of the computers used to sign in and out.

What happens if an employee has an emergency and must leave in the middle of the day? Depending on the circumstances, the worker could submit a retroactive leave request for the missed hours. If the worker were incapacitated, an authorized manager could make the request on the person's behalf, Drury said.

The ITAS middleware and Web server reside on a four-processor Compaq ProLiant server running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0. The server sits inside the federal data service center on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. ITAS' Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 database resides on a separate four-way ProLiant server, and NIH officials plan an upgrade to Version 7 of the database manager.

'One of our concerns was that SQL Server wouldn't be up to the task,' Drury said. 'We were pleased to find that it more than handles our needs. Oracle [Corp. software] would have been excessive.'

AMS used Sapphire/Web 6.1 from Bluestone Software Inc. of Philadelphia to port ITAS to the Web, Schindler said. Programmers wrote Java and Hypertext Markup Language code that retained the application's features while keeping it compatible with other software that makes Web screens accessible to vision- and motor-impaired workers.

Drury estimated that ITAS development cost NIH about $1.5 million, not counting implementation costs or the savings that have not been formally measured.

'We know we've saved enormous amounts of time and effort, which translates to money,' Drury said.

NIH's parent agency, the Health and Human Services Department, is piloting ITAS at six agencies, Drury said. There's also talk of forming a consortium that would take responsibility for further federal development of the software, he said.

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