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Berry: Paper and pencil for now in retirement processing

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Retirement benefits processing at the Office of Personnel Management will remain paper-and-pencil bound "for the foreseeable future," OPM Director John Berry Feb. 1 while testifying before a Senate panel.

The agency unveiled a plan (.pdf) in mid-January to eliminate the claims backlog (currently 62,000) by July 2013 and to reduce by then the time it takes to process retirement claims to 60 days or less from the 156 days OPM says on average it takes today. The plan also calls for the agency to pursue "partial, progressive information technology improvements" rather than make a fifth attempt at modernizing all its legacy IT systems.

The agency's immediate priority is to hire additional staff to deal manually with claims, Berry said. He testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on oversight of government management.

Staff numbers at the agency, Berry added, were reduced in anticipation of a modernization effort succeeding, and when the latest attempt failed in February 2011, OPM was left shorthanded.

"I just need the bodies back, get them trained, to get us through the next few years until we can get more IT solutions up and running," he said.

OPM faces much skepticism of its ability to modernize anything.

"The deficit in the IT management capability is very extreme at OPM," said Valerie Melvin, Government Accountability Office director of information management and human capital.

The backlog reduction plan does "not address how the agency intends to modify the many legacy systems" OPM has and the agency must actively work to address the IT management deficiencies that led to past failures, she said.

OPM Inspector General Patrick McFarland said retirement adjudication requires the use of 80 different IT systems that interface with approximately 400 external systems.

Berry, in response to a question, said a commercial-off-the-shelf-system is not a viable replacement for OPM's legacy systems. The last attempt, dubbed RetirEZ, was meant to be a COTS solution but personnel found that the federal retirement system has too many variations, he said.

"What they found was they could not modify the off the shelf system to accommodate all of these unique variables that existed in the federal process."

Berry also said some of the data used to calculate retirement pay arrives at OPM in paper form. "We're still managing thousands of--millions of--pieces of paper on an annual basis," he said.

For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimonies and webcast available)

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