Publisher's Perspective

Moving from being a federal employee to being a federal retiree does not mean that people no longer need personnel services. It merely changes the services that are needed and shifts the responsibility from the employing agency to the Office of Personnel Management.

And that’s where the system breaks down.

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That’s according to the latest of many looks at the issue, done by the agency’s inspector general office in an assessment of the major management challenges facing OPM.

The first issue that would come to many people’s minds would be processing of retirement applications. During that period, which can be many months, retirees receive only “interim” payments that are on average around 80 percent of what their annuity will be. Once the final amount is calculated retirees receive a payment for the difference, but living for months on 80 percent of an annuity—which by definition is less than they were earning as an employee—is a financial hardship to many new retirees.

That well-known problem has been the target of effort after effort dating back at least to the Bush administration. Technology has been thrown it. People have been thrown at it. OPM set a goal to force itself to do better, like taping a bikini to a refrigerator.

That goal is an average processing time of 60 days or less—note that’s an average, not a deadline—and at one point met it, achieving a 56 day average. But in the six month period ending in May of this year the average was 64 days even though the number of applications received was about the same. In other words, OPM put back the salad and pulled out the chocolate cake.

“The underlying causes are legacy systems and manual, paper-based processes that lead to the backlog of cases and long processing times that make interim payments necessary. If OPM had a modern, digital retirement system that could process retirement claims in near real time, there would be no need for interim annuity payments,” it said.

It added that in cases involving disability, an additional problem is that information sent to OPM often is not complete, “which requires further development of the case before moving to the next phase of processing.”

Another goal—again, not binding—is to answer phone calls within five minutes on average. The latest actual figures show the time as only slightly higher, just above six minutes, but that does not reflect the impact on retirees seeking help.

Said the report, “Many annuitants and survivors, frustrated that they cannot contact OPM’s Retirement Services customer service office, call the OIG fraud hotline for answers. Many of these calls are related to concerns about interim annuity payments . . . OPM’s retirement services call center is not equipped to handle the large volume of inquiries from annuitants and survivors.”

The IG added that addressing concerns with OPM’s retirement program office “was a top priority for former OPM director Dale Cabaniss. She was particularly concerned about the Retirement Services call center amid widespread reports from annuitants of inadequate service and that Retirement Services routinely limited the number of calls to be placed in the answer queue.”

During an on-site visit earlier this year she “was so troubled by what she found” that she ordered a flash review, the report said. That review pointed out problems including insufficient capacity for call volume, lack of technical support for the call center IT systems and overall outdated technology there, and that “the system was configured to inappropriately “throttle” calls during peak volume, leading to excessive wait times and busy signals with no explanation to callers.”

OPM has taken some steps in response but “fundamental change will require an investment of time and resources and improved business processes. The technology and infrastructure is not optimized for true call center operations.”

How can OPM achieve such fundamental change? Well, some stability of leadership would help. Cabaniss abruptly resigned shortly after ordering that study, reportedly because of conflicts with White House officials. The same was true of the only other confirmed director of OPM during the Trump administration. Each served only about six months. Other than those periods, OPM has had only acting directors since mid-2015.

Goals don’t achieve themselves, even if you tape them to the refrigerator. It requires day to day persistence. Whether you actually make that effort is how you judge whether the goal—improving customer service to federal retirees, in this case—really is a priority.

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