NIH workers track their own hours electronically

GCN Photo by Hernik G. DeGyor

'We used to call ourselves the 'National Institute for Timekeeping' because that's all we did at that time.'

'NIH's Richard A. Drury

The National Institutes of Health has taken the time, not to mention the keepers, out of timekeeping.

Until the late 1980s, the agency had about 2,000 timekeepers who manually maintained time sheets for 16,000 employees.

'We used to call ourselves the 'National Institute for Timekeeping' because that's all we did at that time,' said Richard A. Drury, NIH's director of human resource technologies.

In the late 1980s, NIH's HR department moved the timekeeping task to a desktop PC system that eased the burden somewhat and reduced the number of workers. But the system still created a lot of paperwork.

Now the institute has a Web application called the Integrated Time and Attendance System that, among other things, lets employees keep track of their leave and make leave requests from their PCs.

The PC timekeeping system replicated standard paper forms. At the end of each two-week pay period, the system loaded the data onto a diskette that was shipped off-site for payroll processing.

The system wasn't particularly effective, Drury said. 'It made all the administrative mistakes that it could.'

The push to upgrade came with then-Vice President Al Gore's reinventing-government program in 1993.

Not off the rack

NIH did a study of its requirements and looked at various commercial timekeeping products, but none was a good fit for the complicated federal leave rules.

'There are hundreds of rules,' Drury said. 'When you get down to coding, it becomes a real issue.'

The institute came across a client-server timekeeping system that American Management Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va., had developed for the National Science Foundation.

'We thought it fit 80 percent of our requirements,' Drury said.

NSF, with 4,000 employees, is considerably smaller than NIH, and its system is less complicated in terms of the types of employees and work schedules. So, the system would need some modifications.

In 1996, NIH bought the software for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, which had about 400 workers.

The system succeeded, and NIH decided to install it at all of its institutes.

'Each time we introduced a new institute, we encountered a new kind of problem, but the system was fairly modular,' Drury said.

At the end of the year, the entire agency was using the client-server system. But by then, the push for electronic commerce was underway.

That prompted the second round of development'taking ITAS to the Web, which NIH started in 1997.

ITAS' server software, Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0, resides on a two-processor Compaq ProLiant server running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0.

The middleware, Hewlett-Packard Bluestone Total-e-Server Version 7.3, resides on a four-processor Compaq ProLiant server running Windows 2000.
The Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 database resides on a separate four-way ProLiant server.

By your leave

NIH used Sapphire/Web 6.1 from Bluestone Software Inc. of Philadelphia to port the system to the Web. The Web version uses HTML, JavaScript, Extensible Markup Language and Java servlets.

Except for two agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, the Web system has been adopted by NIH's parent, the Health and Human Services Department.

Employees make leave requests to supervisors, receive approval and track their requests through ITAS.

But ITAS had one loophole.

An employee figured out that if he deleted the leave request as soon as it was accepted, the system would not deduct it from his total.

'We solved the problem by making sure that ITAS tells the supervisor [via e-mail] whenever a leave request is deleted,' Drury said.

Though NIH has more than a dozen e-mail systems, ITAS works well with all of them, he said.
ITAS also lets employees donate accumulated leave to needy co-workers, such as someone with a serious illness.

NIH is making more enhancements. Employees will soon be able to view their biweekly pay slips on their PCs via ITAS.

The agency has already stopped printing pay slips for employees of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

NIH also is experimenting with making ITAS accessible through personal digital assistants, Drury said.

The agency wants to add more intelligence to the system, such as giving supervisors access to patterns of leave-taking.

For instance, supervisors can be made aware of leave abuse by having reports automatically transmitted to them as soon as an apparent abuse occurs.

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