OPM tackles retirement backlog with more staff, better technology

Wednesday - 1/18/2012, 8:34am EST

WFED's Jason Miller on the Federal Drive

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This story has been updated from its original version.

The Office of Personnel Management is trying to tackle its retirement services backlog with more staff and upgraded technology.

The agency has sent lawmakers a detailed plan, obtained by Federal News Radio.

The agency states it will ask staff to work longer hours, with rewards for increased productivity.

OPM also plans to automate its retirement technology system piece by piece, since a wholesale overhaul failed a few years ago.

OPM Director John Berry said while fixing the system has been important in the past, he's putting pressure on every employee now.

"I think we've got the four right lanes, if you will. I know our people are pumped," he said in an interview with Federal News Radio. "I had a town hall meeting yesterday [Tuesday]. I laid out this was my highest priority of the year and it was the responsibility of everyone working at OPM and not just people working in our retirement division to make this a success. We're going to dog it. I will put everything I got on it. I hope we can move the needle."

The Washington Post, which first reported on the new plan, said the agency does not need Congress' approval and is already going ahead with these changes.

As of Dec. 31, 2011, the personnel agency had a backlog of 48,378 claims and falls behind by 1,900 more each month. On average, OPM takes 156 days to process a new retirement claim, according to the OPM plan.

The plan includes "four pillars":

  • Hire 56 new legal administrative specialists and 20 customer service specialists.
  • Expand work hours and use of overtime. Establish higher production standards and consider production bonuses.
  • Partner with other agencies to provide more feedback and involve chief human capital officers.
  • Upgrade technology.

With these changes, OPM will be able to increase its claims processing to as much as 2,000 per month before July 2012 and as much as 5,000 per month once the staff is fully trained, according to the plan.

Berry said he believes the plan hits the right tune on every area where they have struggled in the past. And OPM isn't just relying on its internal expertise or those of contractors.

"We're also working with DoD. We've had the Navy Lean Six Sigma team in with us over a three week period," Berry said. "They've identified some great process improvements and we're already implementing those. Some are already making it faster. So, process and making it simpler and more efficient will be a good part of this."

Berry said hiring the new employees will make a big difference.

"We are putting more bodies on it knowing that because we don't have an IT solution anywhere near on the horizon, we can't kid ourselves. We need more bodies," Berry said.

OPM is working more closely with the Chief Human Capital Officer's Council to improve agency buy in.

"Somewhere between 20 and 40 percent, depending on what time of year it is, of the files we are getting are missing pieces of paper that we can't adjudicate until we get complete, and it takes a long time for us to chase down those pieces of paper," Berry said. "We can either continue to do that ourselves or we can seek help. This plan lays out help from all the federal agencies working with us and using the CHCO Council as the accountable body to help us get this done so that the agencies will really hold themselves accountable to give us files that are ready to go."

"This will eliminate the backlog within 18 months and allow RS [retirement services] to adjudicate 90 percent of all new claims within 60 days of receipt from agencies," the plan said.

Berry said late last year that the agency is taking an "all hands on deck" approach to fixing the retirement system — terminology that is reiterated in the plan. In November, Berry said he had already hired 35 employees to work through the backlog of claims.

Former Federal Aviation Administration chief information officer David Bowen joined the Office of Personnel Management as its chief technology officer in December. Bowen was hired to play a major role in modernizing OPM's retirement system.

Federal News Radio's Jason Miller and Jack Moore contributed to this story.

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