Government has history of computer problems, including those affecting feds

Joe Davidson
Columnist October 28, 2013

Problems with the Affordable Care Act’s Web site have been a big headache for President Obama, not to mention its many frustrated users.

Unfortunately, this is not isolated pain.

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

Over the years, government computer ailments have made life difficult for federal civilian employees and job seekers in numerous ways. But there are lessons in the misery: Operations generally do get better.

Sometimes, however, you just have to say junk it.

That’s what the Office of Personnel Management did in 2008, under the Bush administration, and again in 2011 under President Obama, after repeatedly trying to modernize its system for federal employee retirement processing.

It was a big problem for a long time. Issues with OPM’s job-listing and employment application management systems also caused heartburn, but not the level and duration of distress that still lingers with fulfilling retirement claims.

“There has been an ugly history in our retirement processing area,” then-OPM Director John Berry, now U.S. ambassador to Australia, told reporters in 2010.

The story dates to at least 1987 and continues today.

A section title in a Government Accountability Office report released in May said “OPM Has a Long History of Unsuccessful Retirement Modernization Initiatives.” GAO reports that “following attempts over more than two decades, the agency has not yet been successful in achieving the modernized retirement system that it envisioned.”

An automated retirement processing system that began in 1987 was terminated in 1996 after being plagued by “various management weaknesses,” according to GAO. The next year, OPM embarked on a new Retirement Systems Modernization program, only to change directions in 2001, which was the third such effort.

“In February 2008, OPM renamed the program RetireEZ and deployed an automated retirement processing system,” GAO said. “However, by May 2008 the agency determined that the system was not working as expected and suspended system operation. In October 2008, after five months of attempting to address quality issues, the agency terminated the contract for the system. In November 2008, OPM began restructuring the program and reported that its efforts to modernize retirement processing would continue. However, after several years of trying to revitalize the program, the agency terminated the retirement system modernization in February 2011.”

That, in a nutshell, is the ugly history.

Today, things are better, but they don’t look as good as they should.

OPM decided to take an incremental approach to technological improvements in the retirement system. Much of the attention has been focused on cutting long retirement processing wait times by putting more warm bodies on the job.

An August OPM Progress Report says the agency “backfilled vacant positions, and used overtime to dramatically expand capacity,” while following a “partial IT improvements strategy.”

As a result, “today fewer applications are awaiting processing than at any time in nearly four years.”

That sounds good, but it doesn’t mean things are where they need to be.

The average time to process a new retirement claim has dropped from 156 days in December 2011 to 136 days a year later to 91 days at the end of July, according to the report.

A significant improvement, yet 91 days is 50 percent greater than OPM’s goal of 60 days. OPM cited two reasons for falling short. One was unexpected Postal Service buyouts and early retirements. The other, sequestration budget cuts, said the Progress Report, “stopped all overtime work on retirement processing in April of 2013.”

Like HealthCare.gov, USAJOBS.gov, where federal job opportunities are listed, malfunctioned shortly after it opened in October 2011. Many job seekers could not find their stored data, searches returned bad information and some people simply couldn’t get on the site at all.

Since then “USAJOBS has improved the functionality and usability of the Web site significantly, and today, USAJOBS has an average monthly user satisfaction rate in the mid-70s,” said Chuck Simpson, OPM’s chief information officer. It was named one of “The 10 Best Websites for Your Career” by Forbes in 2012.

USA Staffing, OPM’s hiring software, also caused discomfort in 2011 when it lost 70,000 applications and was down for days. But it recovered, as did USAJOBS.

Neither program is nearly as big as the Affordable Care Act site, but if they can make a turnaround, maybe HealthCare.gov can too.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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