In a hearing sure to be tracked closely by federal job seekers and federal retirees, House lawmakers are set to examine Tuesday whether the Office of Personnel Management is properly equipped to handle an increasing number of federal job applications and the timely payment of retirement benefits.
The hearing comes as OPM faces criticism from federal job seekers for serious deficiencies with its USAJobs.gov Web site and long-standing complaints from federal retirees who in many cases wait months before receiving their benefits payments.
As colleague Joe Davidson wrote recently, “the problems have outraged clients at opposite points of the federal job pipeline — job seekers at one end and federal retirees at the other.” Davidson noted that several issues with internal and external computer systems operated by OPM — related to USAJobs, USA Staffing and modernizations to its retirement benefits system — run the risk of earning OPM the nickname “Oops, the Processor Malfunctioned.”
At the hearing, Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, is expected to criticize OPM’s decision to spend $6 million and 18 months rebuilding a jobs site previously operated by the privately-operated jobs site Monster.com, noting that “taxpayers are now paying for a system that doesn’t work, costs more and takes business away from the private sector.”
“This raises questions about OPM’s decision to craft an in-house system given its poor history of information systems development,” Ross is expected to say, according to his prepared opening statement.
“With a federal workforce size of approximately 2.8 million people, the Office of Personnel Management is tasked with recruiting, retaining, and honoring a world-class workforce for the American people,” Ross said. “Unfortunately, OPM’s track record calls into question its ability to resolve its hiring and retirement claims systems in order meet its core mission.”
In response, OPM Director John Berry is set to apologize once more for the lingering issues with USAJobs, but also note what he considers an impressive series of figures: Since its relaunch in mid-October, the site has hosted more than 12 million visitors, including 2 million actual users submitting job applications, according to Berry. Nearly 800,000 job applications have been submitted on the site and nearly 500,000 resumes have been created or edited for use by federal hiring managers, according to his prepared testimony.
In explaining the history of the USAJobs debacle, Berry is slated to tell the subcommittee that the decision to retake control of the site was made almost two years ago by federal human resources officials in hopes of providing flexibility for the fast-evolving needs of federal agencies, to better track government-wide employment data and “to enhance the protection of the sensitive information provided by job applicants, limiting access for authorized use only.”
Regarding the chronic delays in processing retirement payments, Berry said he is “deeply troubled” by the length of time it takes to process claims.
Problems with OPM’s processing of federal retirees’ benefits payments dates back to efforts in the late 1980s to start automating the federal retirement system. The agency is still devoting significant resources to fixing the problem.
Federal retirees “deserve solid, respectful treatment that is commensurate with their service,” Berry is expected to say. “Nothing less is acceptable to me.”
But Berry notes that “There is no simple or easy solution that is capable of instantly remedying the problem, but we are doing everything in our power to improve service to our annuitants as rapidly as possible within the constraint of available resources.”
Patrick McFarland, OPM’s inspector general who closely tracks agency operations, is expected to tell the House panel that the agency’s lack of in-house technological know-how is causing most of its problems, according to his prepared testimony.
Berry and McFarland’s testimony was provided in advance by committee staffers.
In his testimony, McFarland calls on OPM to hire at least one or two people with familiarity in building large Web sites and databases.
“I cannot stress how important it is to have the correct processes in place at the beginning of any project,” McFarland said. “It is much easier (and more efficient) to invest the time and resources necessary to develop the right procedures to use going forward than it is to go back and fix problems after they occur.”
Now isn’t that an understatement?!
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