Comment: On the Research Administration Reengineering Report . . .

Research Support: Some Feedback on the Reengineering Plan

I would like to applaud the Reengineering team for recognizing that Research Accounting (RA) and the Office of Research Administration(ORA) should at the least be physically near each other and for recommending a Help Desk to steer P.I.'s and B.A.'s to the correct area for meeting their needs. These moves should help to reduce duplication of effort and assist the field (our colleagues in the schools and centers) in their confusion as to who is responsible. At this time I think there is a perception out there that we like to shift the responsibility to one another, but in reality we really do carry out the separate and distinct functions of pre- and post- award administration.

I feel that much of the Reengineering Report (Almanac, May 14) proposes change for the sake of change with no solid evidence that such changes are going to be of any benefit (e.g. that the receivable will be reduced) and fails to recognize that almost 100% of our current problems are the direct result of employee turnover and not because of the way we are structured. I am extremely upset that no such study of what turnover is costing us was made and that RA was completely unrepresented on the Team. It seems for the proposed plan to work a substantial investment in technological equipment will be needed. The way our office is currently run, it is evident that we do not have any resources for such an investment.

Let me explain why this is evident. I started as supervisor in mid-June '94. Since that time 12 employees have left their positions; counting hires from within, this led to the filling of 20 vacancies. We are obviously not able to compete with the marketplace. I entered the job market in 1988 at $20,000, in a city where the cost of living is lower than here. We currently offer $19,900 to start. Throw in parking for a new employee, which runs about $1,500 a year, include the city tax, and it surprises me that we are able to attract anyone college-educated. The lure is that they can get their foot in the door at Penn and move on. And move on they do. We are not allowed to compete with the schools and centers; they can offer a higher salary even though the position they offer is lower in pay grade.

While it may seem to be a benefit to the University that the field is picking up an employee that has been initially trained at the cost of RA, I believe the detriment is far worseas evidenced by the over 2,000 accounts that need to be closed out, and our very large receivable. Who knows how many sponsors are turned off in doing future business due to a late Financial Statement?

The report fails to recognize that we must reward solid performance and experience, and until we do that, problems will continue. At least in the current structure we can promote from within and that induces experience to stay longer. I equate the Team Leader position and the Financial Manager position of the so-called Research Services with the Contract Administrator and Junior Accountant positions of today. Our duties are so different in nature that I see it very unlikely for any career path to occur. I would like to add that we are currently down to four staff members in Financial Reporting and have been obstructed for periods up to three months in getting approval for replacements. Can you believe that an institution that is the fourth largest recipient of NIH grants (source: The NIH Grants Database) has only four staff members with less than two years' experience handling the financial reporting for all grants and contracts of the University? I'm not sure how much more on the cutting edge we can get. Can we possibly have the money to take on the effort proposed by the Reengineering Report based on our current operations?

Money is not the sole reason people leave; there is the frustration of a lack of proper equipment to do our jobs effectively, an office atmosphere that is conducive to frequent interruptions, a lack of praise by upper management, and a self-defeating feeling that we can't address our work in a timely manner.

The problem in Research Accounting has been known since the Coopers & Lybrand study back in October '94. I do not feel this new report has addressed any of those problems. While the report lists the problems of RA, it simply states that "the model has been designed to address these problems." What model? I have encouraged people to hold on and stay based on the outcome of this report. If anything, this report discourages us due to the uncertainty of our positions. Since the Financial Manager and Team Leader positions will be newly created, I assume we will have to apply for those positions and compete with the University staff at large. We are in a crisis situation that needs immediate action now. The chaos of past NIH reporting to meet their expanded authority revocation deadline has resulted in further problems which need our attention.

We start FinMIS on July 1. While in the long run I believe FinMIS will be an improvement and may actually reduce our staffing needs, in the short run our needs will be greater. It is my understanding that on July 1, Project to Date Activity will be rolled over to its new account number. Since much of our reporting is period reporting, we will need to combine old account activity with new account activity. This might require us to fiche activity for every individual month in the period we are reportingon one fiche machineand summarize the activity on a spreadsheet. We have no guarantee that our automated billing system will work, and invoicing may need to be done manually. I expect a bombardment of questions from the field asking us what to do and disrupting our normal work flow. Additionally, if action is not taken, we risk losing even more staff. The Reengineering Report was the last hope for immediate change.

I like our current structure and, yes, it would work if turnover could be reduced in both ORA and RA, if the field were properly educated, and if we were technologically current. Why aren't we? Where did we go wrong? The failure started when we failed to recognize the value of experienced staff at a price that would have been peanuts compared to the problems that currently exist. I can't imagine what it cost this university for Coopers & Lybrand's expert opinion and for the time and effort of the Team, but I assume it is greater than what it would have cost to keep experienced and productive staff. While I don't expect anyone to stay in Research Accounting forever, we need to make them want to stay for at least four years so the knowledge base stays constant and we can provide better service.

I propose that for each four months of solid performance an increase in pay and seniority be made. (By the time an annual review and wage increase takes place, the person has already left.) I am glad the report acknowledged that the combined services of ORA and RA make up only 22% of the total budget spent centrally on Sponsored Projects. My concern is that the implementation team's time and effort will cost more than what I think is a simple fix.

I originally wrote the above in preparation of a meeting to discuss the Report with both RA and ORA present. To address additional issues and comments made at the meeting:

I am extremely fearful that the turnover in RA will increase unless immediate action is taken. An applicant who worked in research accounting and carried out similar duties at Georgetown recently applied to Penn because he wanted to come to Philadelphia. His salary was in the $30Ks, and of course he was unattainable at the $19,900 salary we currently offer. Similarly, an ex-employee of RA now works for the comparable department at Rutgers. They are expanding their department and are offering salaries starting at $33,900 for positions similar to ours.

I am fearful that RA has the reputation that its employees simply slap the numbers from the accounting system on a Financial Report and that is what justifies the low salary. In reality, they must be well-versed in sponsor accounting requirements and report formats, check the legitimacy of all journal entries sent to our office, and assist the BAs in properly closing an account.

It was said that PIs rarely mentioned any problems with RA and that this must mean we are performing an adequate job. This comment does not surprise me because PIs are primarily concerned with obtaining the funding, and not the final reporting. We rarely hear from a PI unless a late Financial Statement is jeopardizing future funding. ORA primarily serves the PIs needs and RA serves the needs of the sponsor. The PI brings recognition, research funding, and the academic reputation that Penn enjoys. Let's not forget our responsibilities to the sponsor who supplies the funding. Without it, we have nothing.

Richard J. Snyder, Supervisor
Research Accounting/Comptroller's Office

A response to Mr. Snyder from Mr. Golding is below.

. . . with a Response from the Vice President for Finance

Response to Mr. Snyder

Thank you for your response to the report of the Sponsored Projects Reengineering Team. I am encouraged by your willingness to ask these substantial questions, and I am confident that the explanations below will help to answer them. Please recognize that the changes put forth in the report will be implemented by an experienced team of the University's research administrators and finance staff, and that the implementation process is expected to continue into 1998.

Proposed changes are based on a lengthy period of data collection which included: surveys, focus groups and interviews with principal investigators; interviews and focus groups with business administrators; interviews with deans and senior faculty members; and, very importantly, interviews and focus groups with members of all of the regulatory offices (Regulatory Affairs, ULAR, Environmental Health & Safety, etc.), the Office of Research Administration, and the Research Accounting Department. In addition, Team members conducted a best practices survey of other institutions. This survey provided the Team with ideas as to how other institutions manage their sponsored projects support process.

These people provided the Team invaluable information regarding what works well in today's sponsored projects support process, and what can be improved. Changes were based on this information. Proposed changes were then presented to the same groups of people who provided feedback. Their feedback was used to fine-tune the proposal. The process was thorough, iterative, and designed to surface and address the key issues.

The Department of Research Accounting was represented on the Team. The representative brought a wealth of information to the Team, not only regarding process steps, but also concerning issues such as the high rate of employee turnover in Research Accounting, and he introduced several solutions for dealing with that problem.

The proposed organization deals directly with employee turnover and how it might be reduced. The Team recognized that today's junior accountant positions in Research Accounting may not be as challenging as other positions in the schools, and proposed to restructure the job responsibilities to not only challenge employees, but to encourage their professional growth through cross-training and exposing them to all portions of the sponsored projects support process; not only the post-award portion of it. With increased responsibility comes increased salary ranges. The Team recognizes that these positions are more senior than the existing positions, and proposes that, throughout the transition to the proposed organization, incumbents are offered the appropriate training and support to permit them to succeed in the new environment. Values of the new environment will and must include: regular and appropriate reward and recognition, skilled management, team work, accountability at all levels, and proper equipment to complete tasks.

In addition, the University recognizes that smart investments must be made in order to ensure its future success. These investments include technology. The full use of FinMIS cannot be successful without further investment in technology and information systems. The Sponsored Projects Reengineering Project recognized this, and sought to seize the opportunity to design a state-of-the-art process to serve its faculty and sponsors. Sponsors are also making technological investments and the University must be able to interface with them in the future. An investment in technology for the sponsored projects support process is a sound business decision.

You indicate that immediate action must be taken to close out the 2,000 accounts. The Team recommended that this be one of the first actions taken as soon as practical, and a target date to begin that concentrated effort is being identified.

Stephen Golding, Vice President, Finance


Volume 42 Number 33
May 21/28, 1996

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