OPM unveils IT plan to improve federal retirement operations, recruitment

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 11

Office of Personnel Management Director Katherine Archuleta announced a new strategic plan Tuesday that she said will help the agency “recruit, retain and honor a world-class federal workforce.”

While Archuleta said the “Strategic IT Plan addresses our technology needs across the agency,” the plan itself states that it is focused on “especially retirement programs and USAJobs.”

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

Those two areas represent the entire spectrum of federal employment, from recruitment to retirement. Recruitment and retirement also are areas in which OPM has had extensive information technology difficulties in the past.

As part of the plan, the agency is developing a case management system designed to facilitate retirement and other personnel programs. During an interview, Archuleta said OPM is adding 20 customer service representatives to improve operations for annuitants.

The first of six pillars in the plan is IT leadership. This pillar centralizes the agency’s information technology operations with the recent hiring of a chief information officer and a chief technology officer. Now there is “one office that is overseeing the IT needs within OPM. That is an important piece,” Archuleta said, “because we’ve had it distributed throughout the agency.”

The other pillars have appropriately important-sounding labels — IT Governance, Enterprise Architecture, Agile IT, Data Analytics and Information Security. Yet, as impressive as the plan might seem on paper, it is performance, as Archuleta knows, that counts.

“OPM’s IT infrastructure has long lagged behind the times, and previous modernization efforts have failed,” said Joseph A. Beaudoin, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE). “We appreciate the new approach Director Archuleta is taking to deliver better services to federal agencies, employees and retirees.” Adequate funding from Congress is key, he added.

During her confirmation hearing last year, Archuleta acknowledged OPM’s previous shortcomings and promised to develop an IT modernization plan within 100 days after taking office. She did release the plan in 85 working days, but 127 calendar days after her Nov. 4 swearing-in.

But who’s counting?

The plan was completed before the 100-day deadline, according to an OPM spokesman, but Archuleta wanted to review it thoroughly before unveiling it publicly.

What really matters is how well the plan works. OPM’s IT performance history provides ample ammunition for skeptics.

USAJobs.gov is the government’s jobs database. OPM had to deal with major Web site problems in 2011 after the agency took over operation of the site from Monster, a commercial jobs Web site. Applicants were frustrated and outraged when they were blocked from the OPM site or had difficulty finding stored information or received wildly erroneous responses to searches. Members of Congress were incensed.

“We seek to simplify USAJOBS® to ease the burden on applicants and build the most diverse, highly talented workforce,” the plan says. “We also seek to ensure data availability and accuracy across the lifecycle for faster retirement processing, increased accuracy of annuity calculations, and a reduced backlog of cases.”

OPM has stumbled in previous attempts to improve its retirement operations. Federal retirees have complained about long delays in getting their full annuity checks. On Tuesday, my colleague Josh Hicks reported that OPM’s retirement claims inventory “is considerably smaller than it was at this time last year, but the number of unprocessed claims is now growing at a faster rate.”

Archuleta said a new case-management system would lead to improvements in retirement processing. Case management will allow OPM to “track and report on cases, such as applications for retirement, at a more granular level than we are currently capable of doing,” the plan states.

One reason for optimism is the OPM staffers working the strategic plan. Donna K. Seymour is OPM’s new chief information officer. She moved to OPM from the Defense Department, where she was acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Office of Warrior Care Policy.

“In 2010, she was awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Award by the Secretary of the Navy, and in 2007 was named as a Top 100 Chief Information Officer by Computerworld,” according to her OPM bio.

Working with her is Amen Ra Mashariki, OPM’s chief technology officer. The former White House Fellow and winner of the Chicago Museum of Science “Top Technology Innovators” award has a doctorate in information engineering from Morgan State University.

Even before implementation of the plan, Archuleta said OPM is on track to finish processing 90 percent of retiree claims within 60 days by later this year.

“With the expected retirement wave beginning to break, modernization is crucial to ensuring new retirees receive their full annuity shortly after their retirement date,” Beaudoin said. “Retirees and survivors should not have to endure long waits to receive answers to simple questions, which is currently the situation.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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

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