Are recent problems with Web site signs of deeper woes at OPM?

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 9, 2011

One way to look at the confusing mess that developed when the Office of Personnel Management replaced a private company operating the government’s computerized jobs board is as an isolated situation that OPM moved quickly to fix.

That’s the way OPM Director John Berry views the government’s bungled takeover last month of USAJobs.gov, the Web site that lists federal job openings.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

But it’s also reasonable to view the USAJobs situation in the context of other problems OPM has had in providing customer service. There’s some symmetry here, as the problems have outraged clients at opposite points of the federal job pipeline — job seekers at one end and federal retirees at the other.

The USAJobs malfunctions began after OPM started operating the site Oct. 11. The bugs outraged thousands of applicants who couldn’t find their stored data or whose searches provided crazy information or who were blocked from getting on the site at all.

Those issues followed the USA Staffing debacle. This program generates job announcements, rates job applicants and manages applicant records. In August, it managed to lose 70,000 applications and was out of service for days.

For those leaving federal service, automated retirement processing is a chronic ailment that OPM can’t seem to shake. It stretches back to 1987, when OPM attempted to automate the retirement system for federal employees. More than 20 years later, Berry has devoted increased purse and people power to serve retirees, but so far, the search for a computerized solution remains elusive. Three years ago, under the George W. Bush administration, OPM cut its losses at $21 million before canceling a 10-year program called RetireEZ, which proved not to be easy.

In a February 2010 letter to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who had complained about a retirement system that is “scandalously wasteful and ineffective,” Berry said OPM planned a modernization program designed to take the agency “from a process that is heavily dependent upon the use of paper documents to one that utilizes electronic data.”

But a February 2011 agency budget document said: “OPM has made the difficult decision to suspend all retirement systems modernization activities immediately. We recognize that the full automation of the Federal retirement process is needed to bring better and more efficient services to current and future retirees . . . [but] have determined that we must suspend this project in response to the financial challenges our Government is currently facing.”

So if three makes a pattern, do the USAJobs, USA Staffing and retirement modernization headaches mean OPM has a systemic problem with using technology to serve its clients?

Berry says no.

“I would argue these are three distinct challenges,” he said in an interview. “I think it would be a mistake to paint them with a single brush stroke. . . . Yes, they all have different aspects of IT challenges as many problems do. But to imply . . . we have an inability to wrestle with IT challenges would be wrong.”

With justification, he points to the Government Accountability Office dropping federal personnel background investigations from its High-Risk List, which highlights major government problems. OPM does most of those investigations. “It was a very complicated IT system,” Berry said. “I would argue . . . that [the] IT solution is far more complicated and complex than any one of these others and that it is successfully working.”

To his credit, Berry has apologized for his agency’s poor performance after OPM took over operation of USAJobs from Monster, and he has not tried to weasel out of responsibility. He held an extraordinary two-hour news briefing last week mostly on USAJobs.

“We could have done a better job up front,” he said in the interview. “We should have done a better job designing capacity to handle any load. We should have had a bigger help desk. We should have had a faster software team that could deal with the bugs and glitches. We didn’t the first week is the reality, but we do now.”

Citing user statistics, he praised his staff for doing “a very solid job in turning around what was a bad first week.”

The first week of problems was so bad that Berry said he considered returning operation of USAJobs to the private sector, as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), among others, has suggested. That’s no longer on the table.

Yet, the problems continue.

On Tuesday, for example, a Facebook comment posted by a Woody Williams said he “figured that the upgrade had purged all of my saved searches, and sure enough, it had. What I HAD NOT counted on was my RESUME being torched.”

Berry has moved aggressively to fix one disaster after another, but how many knocks on OPM’s IT credibility can the agency take? Too many more and OPM will stand for O0ps, the Processor Malfunctioned.

Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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