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Apologetic OPM chief reports progress on mending USAJobs launch

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The federal personnel chief said Thursday that his agency “messed up” the problem-filled launch of the government’s updated job board, and he apologized “to all the applicants who’ve had trouble” finding and applying for jobs for more than three weeks.

“If we had the ability to roll back the clock, I sure would do it differently,” John Berry said at a briefing on USAJobs, the federal employment Web site that the government took over from Monster.com 18 months ago.

Twenty-three days after the site was rolled out, the Office of Personnel Management has added servers and bandwidth and is addressing many of the software glitches that drove job seekers to Facebook and Twitter in anger over error messages, system crashes and disappearing data.

“I’m not here to declare victory,” Berry said, “but we’ve turned the corner.”

However, he acknowledged that his staff miscalculated “the capacity of the system” and made other missteps that led to almost 40,000 formal complaints since the site went live Oct. 11 .

Berry said he has reshuffled the team overseeing the project, added more customer service staff, brought in IT specialists, and consulted with Google and Microsoft executives about the problems. The number of complaints has gone down, he said.

But he said it will be months before all the glitches are gone. On Tuesday, the site crashed for close to five hours because of a hardware problem.

“Our team was doing a good job,” Berry said. “We needed a great job. . . . When a system goes into a death spiral, it’s very hard to pull it up and out.”

Berry said that until he was satisfied this week that the problems were ebbing, he considered giving up, having Monster take back the project and eventually rebidding it.

An outside firm hired to survey job applicants about their experience with USAJobs reported satisfaction rates as low as 30 percent in the days after the relaunch. The numbers have risen to the 60 percent range.

USAJobs 3.0 was supposed to make finding a federal job easier and protect applicants from identity theft as their résumés were mixed in with millions of others on Monster’s job board. OPM spent $6 million on the redo — on top of $12 million in annual operating costs — promising a faster response as well as bells and whistles to customize searches.

But within hours of going live, the site was crashing repeatedly, and it was riddled with error messages and search-engine glitches. At first, OPM officials attributed the poor performance to what they described as a spike in traffic from first-time visitors and old members logging in to check passwords.

But on Thursday, Berry and his staff acknowledged other problems, including software and coding mistakes and a help desk staff that was too thin. They also blamed user error: Many applicants are first-time users, and old users forgot passwords and other required security information, which need to be changed.

The botched launch prompted a congressional investigation and criticism from outside contractors, and it revived the debate about whether the government or the private sector is better able to handle complex IT projects.

The problems also became political fodder for conservatives critical of government.

A House panel that oversees the federal workforce has scheduled a hearing on the launch in November.

Berry said that what OPM has spent on emergency fixes since the launch — less than $1 million — was well worth it. “When your house is on fire, you’re not arguing in Wal-Mart about the price of a garden hose,” Berry said.

The USAJobs launch follows a crash last summer at USAStaffing, a Web site run by the government that routes job applications to hiring managers. During a four-day outage in August, résumés, essays and other information for 70,000 candidates were lost.

© The Washington Post Company