USAJobs on brink of becoming a political issue

At a time when finding jobs for Americans is one of the nation’s highest priorities, the malfunction-plagued launch of the new USAJobs website is on the verge of becoming a political issue.

The Barack Obama administration’s reputation for information technology savvy could take a hit if the technical problems continue much longer in the newly-insourced website. With minimal publicity for the USAJobs overhaul until just weeks before the relaunch, the project’s policy underpinnings, management and deployment, as well as its oversight and transparency, also are just starting to be questioned.

Thousands of users have reported failures such as inaccurate or incomplete search results, vanished data and, often, an inability to log into the site at all since its debut on Oct. 11. The Office of Personnel Management, which manages USAJobs, said the website initially was hampered by an unexpected volume of  traffic, but agency officials believe they are making progress addressing the concerns. Users continue to report problems, however, and some industry sources are skeptical that the problem is really so easily solved.

On Oct. 27, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called on the Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel to intervene and resolve the situation, and two other lawmakers have echoed similar concerns. Media coverage has intensified over time.

As USAJobs 3.0 lurches into its fourth week of operation, key questions loom ahead.

The first set of questions has to do with whether OPM has successfully identified the problems with the jobs site's operation and is completing the fixes in a timely fashion.

Are the website’s technical problems under control yet, with the major IT issues identified, progress being made in resolving them, and a date when full resolution can be expected? Has this crisis hit bottom yet? To date, the answer is unclear. 

Industry sources have suggested that poorly-designed or installed data architecture, search engine, coding, software, middleware or lack of sufficient server capacity or incoming data transmission capacity could be the source of the technical problems.

OPM has acknowledged the capacity and traffic problems, but generally has declined to comment in detail on most other speculations about its technical difficulties.

For example, Federal Computer Week asked OPM to comment on a test performed by Avue Technologies Corp, a vendor of job search services. Linda Rix, Avue’s co-chief executive, has been a critic of USAJobs, but she also is one of a small number of job search application experts in the private sector.

Rix said Avue used a testing application to ping USAJobs’ servers and determined that each visitor to USAJobs showed 16 hits to the servers, resulting in overloads to the system and possibly overestimates of traffic on the site. That was 16 times as many as the same test performed on the servers of a similarly-configured job search website, which had a single hit per visitor, Rix said.

“This is an apples to oranges comparison,” OPM officials responded on Oct. 21, declining to provide further details.

OPM also was asked about a report from an industry source that USAJobs’ data transmission lines were the equivalent of 200 T1 lines, in comparison to 2,700 T1 lines used at a private sector job search website.

“There is every indication that 3.0 is capable of handling whatever is needed,” OPM responded on Oct. 21.

However, OPM’s track record on major IT projects is mixed. In August, its USAStaffing system suffered a major outage that resulted in 70,000 submitted job applications becoming inaccessible.

Until the technical problems with USAJobs are dramatically reduced, there is likely to continue to be speculation among users and IT experts on the cause of the USAJobs glitches. Each day that performance suffers is another day for dozens of users to report complaints on a public Facebook page and in the media.

Secondly, should the decision to insource USAJobs to be re-examined in light of recent events and issues raised, and should consideration be given to putting the website out to bid for operation under private vendors performing similar work, or some other alternative? And if so, how and when should the re-examination happen?

There has been active discussion on those topics on Facebook and LinkedIn. Several vendors have suggested that OPM is engaged in anti-competitive activity with USAJobs because it regulates federal agencies at the same time it is selling services to them. However, many vendors and experts experienced in job search technologies have opted not to be quoted directly because they fear their companies may be negatively affected in future work with OPM.

Nonetheless, many issues are being raised about how OPM and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council decided in 2009 to rewrite USAJobs’ computer code from scratch and operate the system on OPM’s servers.

OPM said last week the development budget was $6 million in fiscal 2011 and the project will result in savings of $5 million to taxpayers over 10 years.

From 2004 to September 2011, USAJobs operated on a contract with, which hosted the job search board on its own servers. The contract cost the government about $6 million a year.

OPM made a splashy announcement of the upcoming USAJobs redo in August 2011, but for the prior 18 months there was little publicity coming from the agency about the project. The insourcing and complete computer code rewrite of USAJobs is not mentioned explicitly in OPM’s 2010-2015 Strategic Plan or in OPM’s IT Strategic Plan.

OPM Director John Berry briefly referred to USAJobs in testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee in March 2010, but he provided few details. In his April 2011 written testimony, Berry did not mention USAJobs.

Kerry, in his request for White House intervention, raised the question of whether the government is moving out of its zone of competency when it seeks to operate a major IT project such as USAJobs.

“There are many commercial firms with expertise and experience far beyond the federal government in designing and successfully managing online job websites and any number of them is better equipped to manage this service than the government,” Kerry said on Oct. 26. He has suggested putting USAJobs out for competitive bid.

Other vendor critics have mentioned the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, federal agencies are required to present a business case for each IT system development program. It is often cited as a safeguard against duplication of IT programs that exist in the private sector.

Kerry, along with Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., ranking member Senate Subcommittee on Government Management, Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia, also are urging a revisit to OPM’s decision to insource USAJobs and skeptical of OPM’s plan to raise fees paid by federal agencies to OPM for its operation by 19 percent this year.

Johnson, in a recent submission to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, proposed a $58 million budget cut to USAJobs and said it ought to go to bid again. USAJobs “was never competitively bid when the current contract was up. This cut avoids the in-sourcing, puts the project out for bids and reverses the increased baseline in assessment fees,” Johnson wrote.

Kerry disputed the 19 percent increase in fees to federal agencies. “It seems to me that if it was going to cost less to operate the service, then the fees to agencies should not be going up,” Kerry wrote.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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