OPM takes smaller steps to modernize retirement processes

Wednesday - 4/14/2010, 6:49am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller with OPM Dir. John Berry, pt. 1

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WFED's Jason Miller with OPM Dir. John Berry, pt. 2

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- After failing three times to modernize the federal retirement system with the big bang approach, the Office of Personnel Management is taking a new tack that focuses on incremental changes.

OPM Director John Berry says it starts with hiring a proven leader to take on the project.

"I always believe the most important thing I can do as director is hire good people for these jobs," says Berry during a press conference at IRMCO conference Tuesday. "I hoping I get a superstar who we can put in there [and] who will be an inspirational leader. We reached out broadly across the nation so I'm hoping that this pool will have some really good talent in it."

Berry adds that the vacancy announcement closed in the past few weeks and a decision should be made in the next few months.

In the meantime, OPM is focusing on some short term wins. First off, OPM is automating the records of employees who will retire in the next decade and all the data coming from the four governmentwide payroll providers - the departments of Interior and Agriculture, the General Services Administration and the Defense Finance Accounting Service.

"The next major step we are working on, in parallel to the automating of records, is we've gone to our workers who are doing the process calculations and we are trying to take the most commonly used calculations and automate them," he says. "We want to come up with those that are used 60-to-70 percent of the time. We are not trying to handle the outliers."

OPM has been relying on its inspector general office as a third party independent evaluator of this effort.

"Next year, we hope to get our leader in place and then look beyond the 60 percent, what's the next 10-to-20 percent we want to bring in under this net?" Berry says. "My approach on this is a whittling process and not some magic wave of wand that will solve every case."

Berry says some calculations may never be automated and will have to done manually forever.

"We want to see if we can make it faster for at least 60 percent of all the calculations," he says. "Coming up with one system to automate this will never work as a one system approach. We are starting with how can we handle the bulk of cases and go to a point where there is diminishing return."

OPM also is moving to a results oriented work environment (ROWE). Berry says the agency just started two pilot programs - one in his office and another in the retirement systems office-to test out this concept.

Berry says OPM hired Deloitte to help conduct the pilots that will focus on being more flexible in the workplace by focusing on results.

"These consultants will come in and first spend a couple of months getting to know the employees, the managers, the work setting, the situations and what are the processes," he says. "There is a lot of mapping and lot of understanding of what is going on now. Then they will be working with both employees and management to more carefully define what results we want to go after. In many cases, how we define things are not based on results, but processes. What they have found is when you shift people to the actual result you want, it is an 'aha' moment, where people say 'that's what you want and we should be doing this.'"

Berry adds OPM wants to make the program as flexible as law and regulation will allow, and let employees decide where and when they can best work to get their job done.

He adds that Deloitte will act as a third party auditor and will write a report about the program that will focus on lessons learned. Berry expects the report to help educate other agencies.

"We are working to identify other agencies who may be willing to come in and we can expand this demonstration," he says. "We are pushing a specific philosophy or book. This approach could really help agencies achieve transformation. Focusing on results is the real kernel of truth."

Berry says another short term goal is to replace the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) as the main approach to hire people. OPM recently announced the creation of 12 databases of qualified applicants for some of the most commonly hired positions in government.