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OPM pension processing hamstrung by outdated IT

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John Berry (file photo/Getty Images)

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry’s plan to fix its longstanding pension processing problem got a relatively warm reception on Capitol Hill today. But there were some red flags raised, not least of which is the incredibly sprawling and antiquated set of IT systems and paper-based processes that the government relies upon to calculate new retirees’ pensions. OPM doesn’t have a real plan for straightening it out, the Government Accountability Office said, and needs to do more.

For example: OPM has 80 legacy systems that have to talk to roughly 400 other systems across the rest of the government, IG Patrick McFarland said. And those systems rely on roughly 3 million lines of custom code. If OPM decides to change or repair something in those systems, McFarland said, that is difficult to modify because the agency has to sift through all 3 million lines to find the one line in particular that needs tweaking.

Berry said some systems still even use COBOL, believe it or not, a dinosaur of a programming language that was first introduced 50 years ago.

As a result of all the IT problems, calculating pension payments is still largely a paper-and-pencil process — one that is made much more difficult when agencies don’t submit all the necessary documents. Which is what usually happens.

GAO’s Valerie Melvin also said that OPM’s plan “does not describe whether or how the agency intends to modify or decommission the over 80 legacy systems that support retirement processing.” She wants OPM to take a broader look at its overall IT system structure, and formulate a concrete plan for how it will straighten things out. ”There’s a lot more OPM can do,” Melvin said.

Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee praised Berry for putting the plan forward, and IG McFarland said OPM is now on the right track.

But consultant George Nesterczuk, a former OPM official, blasted Berry for abandoning a full-scale, IT-based modernization of the retirement process and instead relying heavily on adding people. Although the previous administration’s Retirement Systems Modernization strategy that relied on commercial technologies crashed and burned in 2008, Nesterczuk said it “was a sound strategy and it should receive renewed consideration.”

In the meantime, pressure is mounting on OPM. Berry said OPM received 21,000 new retirement applications in January — traditionally the busiest month — which swelled the backlog to 62,000. But there was a bright spot last month — Berry said OPM processed 20 percent more cases this January than in January 2011, which he sees as proof the reforms are already taking hold.

He also pledged to report the size of the backlog to Congress on the fifth day of each month.

[Updated blog post to clarify that OPM's processing problems are a result of all of its IT difficulties.]

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Comments

  1. Robert Benson Says:
    February 1st, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    First, hiring 35 more people last year, and then adding 70+ this year, is not “reforms.” It is throwing money at the problem.

    Second, with more and more FERS retirements each year, there are more and more FRES retirement supplements, which are the real essence of the problem.

    The supplement is highly intricate and complex to calculate. Even with limited computer aid, it still takes an OPM worker nearly 3 hours to do a single case. OPM knows they are in desperate need of automation in this particular area.

    Go to fedbens. us . Click no. 9 on the menu. You will find that if you have the necessary data, entry and production of an ACCURATE supplement result takes only 3 minutes! The program is free.

    Hey, OPM, the software that can bail you out of this mess is FREE! Maybe it would be more attractive if it were offered to you by a contractor for, say, $2-3 million.

  2. Bob Wolfe Says:
    February 2nd, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    Whoops! Mr. John Berry, your ignorance is showing!!

    The article implies that you said:

    //Berry said some systems still even use COBOL, believe it or not, a dinosaur of a programming language that was first introduced 50 years ago. As a result, calculating pension payments is still largely a paper-and-pencil process — one that is made much more difficult when agencies don’t submit all the necessary documents. Which is what usually happens.//

    If you think that the pencil and paper requirement is “as a result” of using COBOL for programming, then you are horribly mis-informed. The programming language used has nothing to do with the requirement for a “paper and pencil process.” The fact that you have to use paper and pencil is a direct result of incompetent programmers and has nothing to do with the language selected.

    In addition, modern COBOL is as modern as any other programming language. It is found on modern web sites, with GUI screens, and loads of other modern features too numerous to mention.

    The fact that it is old means that it works really well to have lasted this long.

    Your programs run horribly because of your poor job of managing and maintaining the system. It’s convenient to blame technology when the real culprit can be found by looking in the mirror.

  3. Stephen Losey Says:
    February 2nd, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    @Bob: I did not mean to imply Director Berry said the COBOL language was responsible for retirement calculations still being a pencil-and-paper process. All of the problems with outdated legacy systems combined are what is keeping the process from being fully automated. I’ve updated the blog to clarify that point.

  4. Retired 1811 Says:
    February 2nd, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Director Berry plan to lie to the sub-committee on the 5th of each month. He just lied again when he testified that OPM needs to use “pencil and paper,” in order to process retirement applcations.
    What a BS excuse as he knows well that agency estimate is as accurate as it will be, as it has been proven. Berry needs to put OPM retirement specialist to work together with the HR specialists So that when the retirement applications are calculated, OPM stamps the approval (period). No need to re-do a pencil and paper excuse as he testified.

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