Fast Facts

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

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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Personnel Management
Priority Rec.
This is a priority 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)
Open
OPM partially concurred with the recommendation. In March 2021, OPM stated that it was working to develop the plan, including conducting user research which will help inform the technology roadmap for the initial project phases. OPM also said that it is planning to incorporate the user research, which will be completed by the end of the second quarter of 2021, and then take further steps to finalize the plan.
Office of Personnel Management 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)
Open
OPM established a timeliness performance goal for reviewing disability retirement eligibility in an average of 45 days or less. This goal is included in its Medical Specialist annual evaluations for both fiscal years 2019 and 2020. In addition, OPM provided an example of its Actions Process Report, which tracks the average processing days from when a disability retirement application is received to when a determination is made. OPM officials stated that they plan to continue tracking the goal into fiscal year 2022 and beyond. We will continue to monitor OPM's actions and seek documentation from OPM to corroborate their statement that they will continue to track the goal for reviewing disability retirement eligibility.
Office of Personnel Management 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)
Closed - Implemented
OPM included explanatory information in its retirement processing timeliness status for October 2019 through February 2021. The explanatory information included the range of processing times with both average number of days for completing retirement cases that were completed in less than 60 days and also more than 60 days. In addition, the explanatory information also stated that disability determinations are included after approval.
Office of Personnel Management 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)
Open
OPM concurred with the recommendation. In December 2020, OPM stated it will review and update the requirements for the case management system as necessary to ensure that the data collection supports its strategies intended to improve processing times. In addition, OPM stated that it will continue to ensure that the case management system requirements capture the data required to support continuous improvement and work with external subject matter experts to refine cost accounting data which may help assess management and performance strategies. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation and update the status once we receive supporting documentation.
Office of Personnel Management 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)
Open
OPM concurred with the recommendation. In December 2020, OPM stated that it plans to provide agencies with information on government-wide trends. In addition, OPM plans to provide agencies with documentation on key areas of concern for which individualized feedback may be beneficial. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Office of Personnel Management 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)
Open
OPM concurred with the recommendation. In December 2020, OPM said that it had reached out to federal agencies for feedback on their challenges with the error report and was collecting the feedback. They also said that they will request cost estimates on the cost to have the audit reports formatted in MS WORD or MS EXCEL. OPM also stated that it will begin providing agencies with more detailed error descriptions and how to troubleshoot them. In addition, OPM stated that it plans to provide agencies with clearer descriptions of data trends. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.

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