The Washington Post

Federal Diary: OPM has plan to fix retirement program


If acknowledging a problem is the first step toward fixing it, the Office of Personnel Management took a step Tuesday when it sent a Strategic Plan for Retirement Services to Congress.

OPM’s retirement services operation is not known for providing service, at least not good service, to federal retirees. Tales of long waits for full annuity checks and unanswered calls to OPM are legendary. The first line of the strategic plan makes the fundamental problem clear:

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

“Federal employees face unacceptable delays in receiving retirement benefits after years of honorable service to the nation.”

To reverse that situation, OPM intends to hire more staff, fire incompetent workers and reward workers who meet increased productivity goals. The aim is to eliminate the retirement claims backlog — which stood at 48,378 on Dec. 31 — within 18 months and then to adjudicate 90 percent of all new claims within 60 days.

The plan, which will be formally unveiled Wednesday, follows a November hearing at which members of the House federal workforce subcommittee peppered OPM Director John Berry with questions and criticisms about the program.

In an interview with the Federal Diary earlier this month, Berry identified fixing the broken retirement process as his top priority for this year.

“I think we’ve got a good game plan pulled together on that and we’re underway pretty actively on it already,” he said.

The plan he sent Congress has four pillars: people; productivity and process improvement; partnering with agencies; and partial, progressive information technology improvements. If the results are as good as the alliteration, retirees should be in good shape.

Elements of the plan include:

●People — Develop an “all hands on deck” approach and hire 56 new legal administrative specialists and 20 new customer service specialists, increasing retirement staffing by 10 percent. OPM also is asking recently retired legal specialists whether they are interested in returning to work.

●Productivity — Set higher production expectations for the staff and consider production bonuses in certain cases. Expand work hours and overtime.

●Partners — Improve the accuracy and completeness of claims going to OPM from other federal agencies.

●Partial, progressive IT improvements — “Since previous efforts to automate the entire RS [retirement system] process have failed, automation of the process piece-by-piece will be the path to success of the initiative,” the plan says.

The plan does not need congressional approval. Hiring of new personnel has begun.

“We plan to have nearly all on board within the next month, if not sooner,” said Kenneth J. Zawodny Jr., OPM’s associate director for retirement services.

According to OPM, the average time to process retirement claims is 156 days. Numerous retirees have complained of waiting twice that time. During the processing period, OPM provides annuitants with partial payments that the agency says in fiscal 2011 averaged 80.3 percent of the full payment. That average, however, also does not convey the extent of the problem felt by many workers after they leave the government.

Several weeks ago, the Federal Diary wrote about a retired federal employee who had been waiting 11 months to get a full retirement check. John Wendt, a former heavy-equipment operator with Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, finally received a check with back payments in December and his first regular full check, about $700, was delivered this month. His monthly partial payment had been only about 15 percent of the full amount. “They are sending me an interim payment of $104,” Wendt, who raises cattle and grain in Ledger, Mont., complained in November.

Stories like that had members of Congress angry and frustrated when Berry met with them during the November federal workforce subcommittee hearing. Chairman Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.) told Berry to develop a business plan with goals and timetables to improve the system.

The strategic plan is the result.

“The current delays in processing accurate and timely annuities to federal retirees are simply unacceptable,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which includes the Ross panel. “While OPM’s focus on this problem is clearly overdue, the new plan is an important step in the right direction.”

One step Berry does not intend to take is to try to automate the entire retirement system at once. OPM has had expensive failures attempting that in the past. Now OPM “is exploring midterm solutions that harness work agencies are already doing [and] require only modest investments in new and existing IT systems.”

If all this works, it will be one big monkey off Berry’s back.

“My highest priority for the year . . . is to get this turned in the right direction,” he said during the interview. “It’s been a great frustration.”

For Joe Davidson’s previous columns, go to Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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