The Office of Personnel Management has dramatically reduced its retirement claims backlog in past years, and, to continue to improve the process, the office plans to procure a case management system to automate federal retirement procedures.
Ken Zawodny, associate director of retirement services at OPM, shed light on the system while testifying Thursday in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the Census. Zawodny and OPM Chief Information Officer Donna Seymour were questioned about the continual backlog of processing retirement claims.
Though the backlog has been cut more than in half, from 23,554 cases in February 2014 to “about 9,500 cases,” Zawodny claimed, the subcommittee expressed concerns with OPM’s retirement services program’s antiquated dependency on paper-based processing instead of using IT. The office released its Strategic Information Technology Plan in February and addressed that issue, but subcommittee Chairman Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, questioned the feasibility of that with OPM relying on more than 80 legacy IT systems just to support retirement services.
“In reality it seems that the system, if successfully implemented, will maybe result in less paper, not be paperless,” Farenthold said of OPM’s IT strategy, noting that since 1987, it has “failed at its attempts to bring modern approach to how the federal government pays federal workers and their penchants.”
OPM’s strategy has been an incremental one since terminating its Retirement Modernization program in February 2011. They pulled $2.6 million from the federal retirement fund to improve its IT systems for retirement efficiencies. And the agency has reduced the backlog — which Farenthold and ranking member Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said hasn’t been easy with a surge in early retirements from the Postal Service and sequestration — OPM still faces the challenge of processing 90 percent of claims within 60 days, a goal it set in 2012. It averages about 83 percent now.
Getting there, Lynch believes, will depend on the program moving from paper-based to electronic, which would make things more efficient and save money. “I’m a little surprised it’s taken this long,” he said.
Zawodny’s case management system, he said, will “track business workflows, which will increase transparency and efficiencies” and “create the foundation for a fully automated system of the future,” though OPM already has a number of automated processes in places for retirement modernization. Soon OPM will release a request for proposals and begin to configure that tool.
“Our effort will include an online retirement application that will help agencies ensure they submit completed retirement applications thoroughly and make information more accessible to personnel planning their retirement,” he said.
The case management system will be an early step in modernizing OPM’s 80-plus applications that are part of the greater retirement services IT mainframe, Seymour said. “So what we’re doing is taking this very incremental approach, putting in pace the case management system first, and then we’re looking at each of those applications to make sure we understand the complete functionality that they perform and how we can move them into the modern environment.”
The Government Accountability Office published a
report on OPM’s IT modernization efforts, and Valerie Melvin, GAO’s director of information management and technology resources issues, pointed to oversight and project management as the main flaw in OPM’s failure to get with the times. She called on Seymour, as CIO, and Zawodny on the business side to take a greater oversight role in ensuring the IT is successful and impactful.
“What we are looking for from a standpoint of what OPM does is to have clearly defined plans and a very detailed, tactical approach to addressing these kinds of complexities,” Melvin said in testimony. Modernization will be “complex, yes,” she said. “But not impossible.”