The Office of Personnel Management said this week that it has secured funding to begin the process of hiring a contractor to create a new electronic case-management system. The system would manage the files of current and former federal employees, which right now are handled by hand, with paper files, in the belly of an underground mine in Pennsylvania.
“It’s going to be a reinvention of the system, modern and automated to improve access for our client base,” said Clif Triplett, the personnel agency’s senior adviser for cybersecurity and information technology, in a call with reporters Wednesday.
The call’s main purpose was to announce that OPM is starting the search for a new chief information officer to modernize another problem area: Aging IT systems that were so vulnerable the Chinese were able to hack into millions of employee personnel files last year.
Those files were computerized. The saving grace of the retirement processing system in Boyers, Pa., may be that no one wants to hack it.
Triplett acknowledged that “today’s system is riddled with manual processes” and described the state of affairs as “almost shocking.”
Our colleague David Fahrenthold found much the same when he visited Boyers in 2014 and documented what goes on in the old limestone mine, where time has pretty much stood still. Six hundred employees assemble the files on paper and pass them to colleagues, who enter the information by hand into a computer, one line at a time. (That part of the process is technically modern).
The system’s slowness has resulted in long delays for retirees to get their federal pensions and their questions answered.
Over three decades, presidential administrations have spent more than $100 million to automate the system. Each project has flopped, with the last failure in 2011.
The agency did hire new staff to review and process claims, which helped whittle down the backlog and speed up processing.
Triplet said both the White House and Congress are providing OPM with funding for the new phase of the project, the engineering and design of the new system.
He declined to say how much money. Or when the long-awaited transformation from paper to computers will begin and be finished.