"There is overwhelming enthusiasm to become more modern within the entire organization," OPM Associate Director Kenneth Zawodny told lawmakers.
The Office of Personnel Management has shrunk its inventory of outstanding retirement claims from 23,544 in February to just over 14,000 cases at last count, said Kenneth Zawodny, associate director of retirement services at the agency.
Although external factors have contributed to the backlog -- including a flood of early retirements among U.S. Postal Service workers responding to a buyout offer -- OPM is also hamstrung by a lack of automation, a struggle to connect legacy systems, and difficulty finding information on retirees who have moved across agencies and in and out of government during their careers.
To build on its progress, OPM is planning to move away from a mainframe system. The agency will release a solicitation and make an award for an online case management system that includes a retirement application before the close of fiscal 2015. OPM is also winding down a pilot project to collect payroll information from federal shared-services providers.
"There is overwhelming enthusiasm to become more modern within the entire organization, from the top all the way down and back up," Zawodny said at a Dec. 10 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Federal Workforce, U.S. Postal Service, and the Census Subcommittee.
Retired feds seem to appreciate the improvement, said Richard Thissen, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association. He surveyed members in advance of the hearing, and about three-quarters reported being at least satisfied with the state of OPM's service delivery. The agency set a goal of closing 90 percent of all cases in 60 days or fewer, and by November it was at 83.4 percent.
However, Thissen also reported hearing from members about cases still being adjudicated more than two years after a retirement claim had been filed.
Subcommittee Chairman Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) expressed concerns that OPM was making headway on the backlog without moving to a paperless system.
"I'm troubled by the fact that this reduction in cutting the backlog in half relies on hiring additional staff to operate a patchwork, paperwork facility with more than 80-plus legacy systems," he said. Noting that the agency had spent only $800,000 of $2.6 million in funding to improve retirement system processing, he added, "I'm afraid the strategic technology plan is short on detail."
Ranking member Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) asked OPM for guidance on its funding needs to implement the new solution.
"I'm a little surprised it's taken this long," he added.
Zawodny said the agency would have a better handle on budgeting for the case management system and other technological improvements to retirement processing after the solicitation is issued. "Only then will we really understand exactly what the true cost is going to be and be able to come back and properly budget for that in out-years," he said.
Under the pending appropriations bill, OPM would be required to update Congress monthly on the retirement backlog and modernization efforts.