New Retirement System Gets a Test Drive

Stephen Barr
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

RetireEZ is up and running.

The Office of Personnel Management yesterday kicked off the first phase of its retirement system upgrade, designed to more quickly and more accurately calculate pension benefits for government employees.

The technology upgrade has been one of the priorities of Linda M. Springer, the OPM director, who oversees one of the largest retirement systems in the world. In an interview yesterday, she called the upgrade "a very historic rollout" that will eventually replace paper records and time-consuming, labor-intensive pension calculations.

With RetireEZ, as the new system is called, the OPM will find it easier to provide benefits when they are first due and agency officials will find it easier to get the retirement claims process underway, Springer said. Employees also will find it easier to look at their retirement options, she said.

When they retire, most employees receive an interim pension payment that can go on for months as the OPM and agencies pull together paper records and reconstruct employment histories. Because employees often transfer among agencies, and sometimes change retirement systems, calculating pensions can be difficult.

"It was a very problematic process in the past," Springer said, "because everything was on paper; some of the paper records were incomplete or housed in different locations. The records that OPM handled alone took 150,00 file drawers to house. So you can imagine how challenging it is in that environment to calculate a new retiree's annuity accurately and pay it at the first payment date.

"That's why, candidly, most retirees experience some delay in getting their full benefit."

Springer said she did not know about the delays in providing full annuities when she was named director in 2005. She gets e-mails every week from federal employees trying to get pension-related information, including data that will help them qualify for a larger retirement check, she said.

"In some cases, it is very dramatic and sad. In some cases, it is just an annoyance," she said. "But in all cases, they can't understand how companies in the private sector can pay pensions fully when they are first due and the federal government can't do it."

The new system will roll out in phases until completed in the spring of 2009. Yesterday's launch covers about 26,000 employees paid through the General Services Administration's payroll processing center. The employees work for such agencies as the National Archives and Records Administration, the Railroad Retirement Board, GSA and the OPM.

By going with a small group of employees and launching in winter when relatively few employees file for retirement, Springer said that the OPM will have "a chance to fine-tune, to educate and, in effect, test-drive the system."

To double-check that the new system is calculating pension payments correctly, Springer said that the OPM and agencies will continue to process paper records until she is satisfied the new system performs as expected. That, she said, should provide an "extra comfort level for employees."

The system has been developed by Hewitt Associates, with a "defined benefits technology solution" that is based on systems used for large private companies and that has been modified to meet federal requirements and policies. It will calculate retirement benefits and provide employees with information about their retirement options.

Other contractors, including Integic, Accenture and BearingPoint, have played key roles in converting paper personnel records to electronic files, helping manage the project and test and evaluate the system.

Cleaning up paper records -- restoring missing information, translating writing in margins, and verifying dates and other data -- was probably the most time-consuming challenge of the conversion, Springer said. "We didn't know the data would be that bad."

But OPM employees on the project worked extra hours from December through this month so that the first phase could start as planned, Springer said.

Subsequent phases will cover the Postal Service, the rest of the executive branch, and the legislative and judicial branches. That's about 2.7 million employees.

Deadline Near for Federal Medals

With this year's Oscars in the history book, it's time to move on to the Sammies.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service is accepting nominations for the 2008 Service to America Medals, known as Sammies, through March 10.

The awards are accompanied by cash prizes of $3,000 to $10,000. All career civilian federal employees are eligible, and anyone may submit a nomination.

Eight medals will be awarded, including for work in national security, law enforcement and the environment. One medal also will honor the Federal Employee of the Year. Winners will be selected based on the impact of their work, on-the-job innovation and commitment to public service.

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