Turning A Mountain Into a Molehill

By Thomas Boyce Print this article Print

When Thomas Boyce arrived at the National Institutes of Health in May 2005
as a senior fellow at the Council for Excellence in Government and program manager for the Electronic Research Administration, he faced the monumental task of transforming a paper-based organization that processed up to 3 billion forms a year into a humming digital machine. Achieving that goal required major cultural changes as much as it did adopting and developing new technologies. Boyce reflects upon his challenges and resolutions for taming the paper beast.  

By Thomas Boyce

One of the primary goals of the federal government’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) is to foster fundamental scientific discoveries and innovative research strategies that advance the United States’ ability to protect and improve human health. The NIH advances this goal by providing more than 55,000 grants to research scientists around the world—grants that consume more than 80 percent of the institutes’ annual $28 billion budget.

Since the 1960s, the NIH has provided automated support for processing and administering these research grants—not only for the NIH, but also for a broad spectrum of federal agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Veterans Health Administration. Since its inception, the system, known as Electronic Research Administration (eRA), has been transformed several times to take advantage of four decades of technology advances.

When I joined the NIH as eRA program manager in May 2005, the system was at a major crossroads. The eRA system—24 complex applications linked through a shared 6 TB transactional database—appeared to be functioning successfully, supporting the processing of tens of thousands of paper-based grant applications each year. In reality, the eRA system was on the verge of a very public crisis.

Between 1998 and 2003, the NIH budget had doubled, resulting in a massive workload increase for the eRA system, with grant applications skyrocketing from 40,000 to 80,000 per year. Despite these increased demands on the system, eRA staff members were charged at the same time with converting the system to an entirely Web-based “eSubmission” environment that would eliminate paper processing altogether.

It was clear that we faced significant challenges in achieving program goals. Fortunately, I had inherited a dedicated staff that was used to making heroic sacrifices to avert failure. My goal was to improve processes so heroics would become unnecessary. Here’s how I did it.

This article was originally published on 2008-02-21
Boyce is senior fellow at the Council for Excellence in Government and program manager for the Electronic Research Administration. He is transitioning to a new job as deputy chief information officer and director of the Office of Information Systems at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
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