President Obama’s nominee to be the next federal personnel chief said Tuesday that she would modernize the agency’s information technology network and bring in new talent to revamp an inefficient, paper-based system for processing lagging retirement claims.
“I know the retirement services staff has worked very hard to reduce the number of days between [an employee’s retirement] and their first check,” Katherine Archuleta told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee at her confirmation hearing.
But she pledged to “create a plan” in her first 100 days as chief of the Office of Personnel Management to overhaul the agency’s computer system, particularly in the retirement area, to cut into a claims backlog that has persisted for years. She said she also plans to hire a chief technology officer to move the plan forward.
Archuleta, a Colorado native, was the national political director for Obama’s reelection campaign and would rank among his administration’s prominent Latinas. She served as chief of staff to then-
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and held positions at the Energy and Transportation departments. She has long been a force in Colorado’s Hispanic community.
She would replace John Berry, whose term expired in April. Elaine Kaplan, who has been nominated to the Court of Federal Claims, has been acting OPM director since then.
In a 90-minute hearing, Archuleta was asked about issues ranging from health-care policy to union officials who earn full-time government salaries, a concern of some Republicans.
In her opening statement, Archuleta said her priorities include recruiting and developing “top talent” and inspiring a younger generation of federal workers “to experience the nobility and excitement that public service offers.”
She described her leadership style as “holding individuals accountable” for their work and said she would not hesitate to weed out poor performers. “There are tools in place, and I would make sure that all managers understand the tools that are available to them.”
Among the OPM’s biggest challenges is overseeing the health insurance plans that cross multiple states and are scheduled to be made available to the public next year under the Affordable Care Act.
The agency is tasked with setting standards and overseeing the plans, which mirror the policies of the health insurance program for federal employees.
Archuleta acknowledged that she lacks experience in the health-care area but said she would bring in a top-notch team to navigate the process.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) criticized the use of what is known as “official time,” noting that 257 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs are paid to conduct union activities on government salaries, reflecting a trend at other agencies.
“Is that reasonable?” he asked Archuleta.
She responded that official time “is protected by federal law.”
“I think by law each department negotiates with bargaining units on the use of official time,” she said.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) asked Archuleta if she would provide the committee with an annual report on the cost to the government of official time, but the nominee would not commit to the request.
The OPM controls the government-wide benefit programs and currently is running a special enrollment period arising from the Supreme Court decision in the Defense of Marriage Act case. That ruling made same-sex spouses and their children eligible for important federal employment-related benefits, including health-insurance coverage — a sign-up period for that continues through Aug. 26 — as well as retirement survivor benefits. An enrollment period for that continues through June 26, 2015.
Eric Yoder contributed to this report.