The National Institutes of Health: Policies, Procedures, and Plans

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Abstract

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a supranational agency with a diverse workforce engaged in various projects. Therefore, proper administration of personnel issues at the agency requires engagements between the management and employee union representatives. Privatization, through partnerships, is one way the agency can achieve efficiency and reduce operational costs. The NIH employees are eligible for the various pension plans available to other federal employees. The agency has an elaborate performance appraisal plan for its employees. This paper evaluates the NIH in terms of union representation, privatization opportunities, employee pension schemes, and performance evaluations. It also gives suggestions on how the agency can improve its performance evaluation procedure.

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The Agency and Unions

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a large agency comprising of 27 centers and a diverse workforce. Efficient administration of such a complex employee network requires good labor-management relations. The staff and management at all levels must work collaboratively to meet the agency’s objectives of advancing biomedical research. Progress in addressing personnel issues, including employee disputes, staff performance, promotions, and working conditions, among others, in the NIH, can be made through productive engagements between the agency’s management and the workforce. Additionally, to comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the agency must advance fair personnel policies and practices to promote staff wellbeing (U.S. Department of Labor, 2015). Therefore, employee engagement through a union is a practical way of ensuring compliance with personnel management laws.

The large and diverse staff population makes it practically impossible to engage employees at a personal level. Employees at each of the 27 centers have unique interests and needs. A personnel administration model that allows unionized employees to channel their complaints through representatives can help with timely resolution of disputes in the agency. In addition, engagements with recognized unions make the agreements legally binding. Thus, besides facilitating professional engagements that yield binding collective agreements, the presence of a union in the agency can strengthen labor-management relations. As an institution that attracts a talented and diverse workforce, stable labor-management relations can improve staff morale, job satisfaction, and retention rate.

The NIH should have union representation for two reasons. First, union representation will facilitate collective agreement negotiations geared towards resolving personnel matters in line with laws governing labor relations. The National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right to engage in collective bargaining with the management (U.S. Department of Labor, 2015). The right to collective bargaining on the terms of service and working conditions through unions is guaranteed under the law. Second, to provide a means for resolving personnel issues, having a union representation is essential. The management and union representatives can engage in amicable discussions on personnel policies and matters of mutual interest. Furthermore, cooperative engagements can strengthen labor-management relations at the NIH and enhance the agency’s ability to deliver services.

The Agency and Privatization

Partnerships with private research institutions provide an opportunity to the NIH to privatize some of its services. Partnerships with biopharmaceutical companies with the necessary research expertise can cut down the amount of resources required in the development of new therapies and diagnostics. The NIH collaborates with the FDA and pharmaceutical firms in biomedical research to develop novel therapies and diagnostics for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders (National Institutes of Health, 2015a). The partnership facilitates sharing of resources and scientific knowledge, which enhances the agency’s competitiveness.

An approach that allows the agency to work with academia will help cut down the costs and reduce the timelines required to develop new treatments. Privatizing clinical research can accelerate the identification of drug targets in drug discovery. Such an approach will shorten the drug development process, improve success rates of clinical trials, and reduce costs. Therefore, research institutions or pharmaceutical companies, which are equipped with state-of-art facilities and expertise, provide the NIH with an opportunity to contract out its drug development services to private organizations with superior research capabilities.

The NIH should privatize some of its services for two reasons. First, privatization will improve service efficiency at the agency. As the lead federal agency for clinical research, the NIH must deliver effective therapies to new and chronic diseases within a short time. Optimizing the development of drugs will require collaboration with private research institutions and industry players with the capability to validate drug targets and conduct clinical trials. Besides, the NIH-private partnerships will reduce the cost of producing new drugs. Second, the NIH will make substantial gains in expertise through partnerships with specialized industry partners. Such partnerships will expand knowledge in biomedical research.

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Employee Pensions Plans

The NIH Benefits and Payroll Liaison department handles the pension plans and retirement procedures of the workers. One pension plan that falls under the federal employee retirement system is the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Federal employees automatically qualify for a TSP account. According to the National Institutes of Health (2015b), TSP is a “retirement savings and investment plan” that serves as a primary source of income to the NIH retirees (para. 7). NIH employees make voluntary contributions to their TSP accounts before retirement. The advantage of the TSP retirement plan is that the employee can continue remitting his or her contributions even after leaving the federal agency.

The NIH remits an equivalent of 1% of the employee’s basic salary into his or her TSP account monthly (National Institutes of Health, 2015b). The agency also deposits an amount equivalent to each member’s contribution to the TSP. TSP is a tax-deferred pension plan. Thus, contributions are exempt from income tax until retirement or withdrawal. Employees can benefit from the interest and dividends that their accounts generate prior to retirement.

The second pension plan available to NIH employees is the Basic Benefit Plan offered by the federal employee retirement system (FERS). Under this scheme, employees with “five or more years of creditable service towards retirement” are eligible for a lifelong annuity payment or a refund of retirement deductions (National Institutes of Health, 2015b, para. 5). The requirements for claiming deferred annuity include a minimum of five years of service and an age of 60 (National Institutes of Health, 2015b). Alternatively, members can apply for a refund of their contributions upon retirement.

NIH employees are also eligible for the FERS Social Security plan. Members can claim social security benefits earned during their years of service at the agency upon reaching 62 years (National Institutes of Health, 2015b). In addition, individuals can claim Medicare benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) upon reaching the age of 65 (National Institutes of Health, 2015b). The NIH supplements the Employees’ contributions to the Social Security at the end of each payment period. Upon retirement, members receive lifelong benefits from the SSA.

Productivity and Performance Evaluation

The NIH performance evaluation is based on the Performance Management Appraisal Policy (PMAP) prescribed by the HHS department. According to the National Institutes of Health (2015c), PMAP covers all NIH employees and entails regular “informal feedback, recognition and awards, and skill development” (para. 2). The agency uses a five-level system to appraise senior employees. Level one rating means that the employee’s performance is unsatisfactory. Employees attaining outstanding results receive a level five rating.

The immediate supervisor participates in employee appraisal as the rating officer. According to National Institutes of Health (2015c), an appraisal official evaluates employee performance, provides frequent feedback, rewards improved performers, and addresses underperformance. The appraisal period is equivalent to one calendar year, but progress reviews are availed to each employee semi-annually. Employee participation is required throughout the appraisal cycle. The aim is to enlighten employees on the performance and standards and expectations attached to their role in the agency.

The rating official uses a performance plan to evaluate the accomplishments of the employee during the appraisal cycle. The key elements of this program include “administrative requirements and individual performance outcomes” that relate to the agency’s strategic objectives (National Institutes of Health, 2015c, para. 5). Employees must achieve at least three performance outcomes as indicated in the plan. The agency requires the supervisor to discuss the rating with the respective employee prior to submitting the completed appraisal to the Staff Division Head. Additionally, an employee can raise his or her objections to the rating with the division head.

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Employees receiving a rating of level two (less than expected results) in any of the performance outcomes enter into discussions with the supervisor on how to correct the deficiencies. Recommended actions include “feedback sessions, developmental opportunities, and assistance from the Employee Relations Office” (National Institutes of Health, 2015c, para. 7). The aim is to help the employee improve his or her performance to level three to retain him or her in the position. In contrast, unsatisfactory performance results (level one) attract disciplinary action against the employee. However, the individual must first go through a performance improvement plan to elevate his or her performance. Consistent unsatisfactory results even after the performance improvement plan leads to termination. Employees achieving outstanding results receive a “performance award payment of up to four (4) percent of salary” (National Institutes of Health, 2015, para. 11). The award is based on the overall rating at the end of the appraisal cycle.

Recommendations for Improving Productivity and Performance Evaluation

The NIH performance appraisal program places the rating responsibility entirely on the supervisor. Supervisors appraise staff, set performance outcomes, and establish the expected productivity at the end of the appraisal period. While supervisors understand the objectives and outcomes of a project, they may lack expertise in employee performance metrics. In this view, the writer’s first recommendation is that performance appraisal at the NIH should involve a collaborative effort between the supervisor, the HR manager, and the individual employee. Such an inclusive approach will introduce professionalism into the performance appraisal process. Additionally, the involvement of the employee in defining the performance elements and outcomes will foster commitment and motivation, which would translate into improved productivity.

The writer’s second recommendation is that the NIH should administer the performance improvement plan to all employees receiving a rating of less than five. Currently, employees receiving a rating of level one at the end of an appraisal cycle sign a performance improvement plan. A performance improvement plan for employees rated level one through to four can be a useful appraisal tool. Additionally, the approach will allow employees to align their career objectives with organizational goals, leading to enhanced efficiency and competitiveness at the agency. The writer’s third recommendation is that the agency should adopt a continual assessment process as opposed to providing feedback at the end of the rating cycle. Such assessments should be based on predefined short-term goals.

References

National Institutes of Health. (2015a). Accelerating Medicines Partnership. Web.

National Institutes of Health. (2015b). Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) Employee Separation from Federal Service (other than retirement).

National Institutes of Health. (2015c). Performance Management Appraisal Program at NIH. Web.

U.S. Department of Labor (2015). Understanding the Legal Context of Assessment-Employment Laws and Regulations with Implications for Assessment

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