Federal Retirement:

OPM Actions Needed to Improve Application Processing Times

GAO-19-217: Published: May 15, 2019. Publicly Released: Jun 14, 2019.

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Contact:

Yvonne D. Jones
(202) 512-6806
jonesy@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The Office of Personnel Management receives over 100,000 federal retirement applications each year. Between 2014 and 2017, OPM did not meet its goal of processing most applications within 60 days.

OPM identified 3 main reasons for delays:

Continued reliance on paper applications and manual processing

Insufficient staffing, particularly during peak season

Incomplete applications

OPM has taken steps toward modernizing the process, such as planning for an electronic application, but it lacks a timetable and cost estimates for IT modernization.

We made 6 recommendations, including that OPM develop an IT modernization plan.

Application for immediate retirement, federal employees retirement system

Application for immediate retirement, federal employees retirement system

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Yvonne D. Jones
(202) 512-6806
jonesy@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which administers the federal retirement program, identified three root causes for retirement processing delays:

1. the continuing reliance on paper-based applications and manual processing;

2. insufficient staffing capacity, particularly during peak workload season; and

3. incomplete applications.

OPM has taken various actions to address these root causes and thereby reduce delays.

Vision for modernizing retirement processing. OPM's strategic vision consists of five key initiatives for modernizing the application process, including developing an electronic application form and an electronic system to store retirement information. However, OPM was unable to provide estimated time frames or costs for the initiatives. OPM officials said that additional information technology (IT) modernization work is dependent on sufficient funding, among other factors. These factors are important but do not preclude OPM from establishing estimated cost ranges and time frames—practices consistent with industry best practices and IT project management principles.

Actions to increase staffing capacity. OPM's actions have included using overtime pay and hiring additional staff. However, OPM generally does not assess the effectiveness of these actions or whether they reduce delays. For example, OPM does not measure overtime productivity or correlate overtime data with application processing data. Federal internal control standards state that management should review its performance compared to its goals. OPM officials stated that they have limited resources for assessments. However, without assessments, OPM is less able to make informed decisions on how to best use staffing practices to improve processing times.

Actions to reduce missing information in applications. OPM provides assistance to agencies through guidance, training, communication through liaisons and email, and error reports. OPM's monthly error reports to agencies include information on the type of error found and the volume of applications with the same error, according to OPM. The four agencies GAO interviewed—Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and U.S. Postal Service (USPS)—reported that aspects of the error reports were not user-friendly. OPM stated that its assistance is intended to help agencies submit complete and accurate retirement packages for quicker processing. Federal internal control standards state that management should communicate quality information externally and periodically reevaluate its communication methods. OPM officials stated that the error report is intended to capture the overarching errors many agencies face and that revising the error report would not be cost-effective. However, the current format of the error report may limit its usefulness to agencies in improving their retirement applications.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to OPM, it receives more than 100,000 retirement applications each fiscal year. Between 2014 to 2017, OPM did not meet its goal of processing most retirement applications within 60 days. GAO was asked to review potential improvements in federal retirement processing at OPM. This report (1) describes the root causes of retirement application processing delays, as determined by OPM; and (2) examines what strategies, if any, OPM has taken to address those root causes, and how OPM has evaluated the effectiveness of the strategies.

GAO reviewed OPM data and documents, and interviewed OPM officials. GAO also interviewed officials from DOD, HHS, NASA, and USPS about their experiences with processing retirement applications. GAO selected these agencies because they represent a variety of application error rates and relatively high application volume.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 6 recommendations. These recommendations include that OPM should develop a retirement services IT modernization plan for initial project phases; develop and implement policies for assessing staffing strategies intended to improve processing times; and determine if there are cost-effective ways to make the retirement application error report more user-friendly. OPM concurred with 1 recommendation and partially concurred with 5 recommendations. GAO continues to believe all aspects of the recommendations are valid, as discussed in the report. GAO also incorporated technical comments.

For more information, contact Yvonne D. Jones at (202) 512-6806 or jonesy@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: OPM partially concurred with the recommendation. OPM stated that it has established initial high-level funding estimates for each of its five key IT initiatives. OPM cited that its ability to implement the modernization plan depends on the availability of funding and coordination with the agency's top leadership.

    Recommendation: The Associate Director of OPM's Retirement Services, working in coordination with the Chief Information Officer, should develop, document, and implement a Retirement Services IT modernization plan for initial project phases that is consistent with key aspects of IT project management, such as determining objectives, costs, and time frames for each initial phase. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: OPM partially concurred with the recommendation and responded that it measures overtime spending, reviews daily work level in each work unit, and assesses employee productivity in these units. Collecting and reviewing such operational-level data contributes to monitoring efforts; however the recommendation emphasizes the importance of using performance information to better manage operations to align with organizational goals.

    Recommendation: The Associate Director of OPM's Retirement Services should adopt management practices to enhance the use of performance information on processing timeliness to inform how OPM manages operations, identifies problem areas, and allocates resources. For example, OPM could enhance use of performance measures at the operational level or establish a timeliness performance goal for reviewing disability retirement eligibility. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: OPM partially concurred with the recommendation. OPM agreed to add an explanation about disability retirement eligibility determinations to its public reports. OPM disagreed that reporting data on the range of processing times would be beneficial because, according to OPM, it provides processing information through other means, such as through applicants' online accounts and agency benefit officers. OPM also acknowledged that it already collects and shares such data.

    Recommendation: The Associate Director of OPM's Retirement Services should provide explanatory information, such as the range of processing times and the exclusion of disability retirement eligibility determinations, as part of the performance measure on processing timeliness. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: OPM partially concurred with the recommendation. OPM stated that a new case management system could provide better productivity and staffing data with which to assess effectiveness, but is dependent on funding and IT support.

    Recommendation: The Associate Director of OPM's Retirement Services should develop and implement policies and procedures for assessing strategies intended to improve processing times, including collecting and improving data needed to support those strategies, such as collecting better productivity data or staffing data and linking them to processing outcomes. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: OPM concurred with the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Associate Director of OPM's Retirement Services should examine its process for assessing its assistance to agencies on retirement applications. For example, OPM could incorporate into its assessment process more agency feedback or documentation of assessment results, which could improve its partnership with agencies to strengthen the assistance provided. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: OPM partially concurred with the recommendation. OPM stated that it will explore using MS Excel spreadsheets and incorporating clearer descriptions of errors and data trends. OPM also stated that collecting disability application error information is not an inexpensive or simple process change.

    Recommendation: The Associate Director of OPM's Retirement Services should work with agencies to determine if there are cost-effective ways to make the retirement application error report that it sends to agencies more user-friendly. For example, explore whether there are cost-effective ways to provide the error report in a format that could be manipulated (e.g., Excel spreadsheet), or to include additional information, such as incorporating disability retirement applications or providing clearer descriptions of errors or trend data, some of which OPM already collects. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Office of Personnel Management

 

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