As the Office of Personnel Management moves toward an all-electronic, paperless system of employee records, Bill Zielinski, associate director of retirement services, said the biggest change will be skipping the paper step entirely. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)
Step by step, the Office of Personnel Management is moving to an all-electronic, paperless system of employee records that it hopes will one day allow computers to rapidly and accurately calculate employees' pensions.
Agencies have already started scanning all new employee records as soon as they are established to create electronic file folders, and OPM is triaging its scanning of older records by focusing on employees who are likely to retire within the next five years.
But the biggest change will come over the next three years, as OPM pushes agencies to skip the paper step entirely. Instead, said Associate Director of Retirement Services Bill Zielinski, OPM wants agencies to begin tracking service records, salaries, possible law enforcement history and other employee information as structured data — pure information entered into a computer that bypasses the need for paper records that must be scanned.
The Agriculture Department's National Finance Center in December became the first to begin submitting structured data to OPM, and other payroll providers are expected to follow between now and 2014.
Zielinski said having that type of data is vital if OPM is to truly automate the pension calculation process.
"I'd really like to get away from images or pictures of documents altogether," Zielinski said. "Really, what we have in those pictures is information. I really want it as structured data that isn't dependent upon somebody viewing it but can be fed automatically in and through systems."
Zielinski's goal is to eventually have all data that goes into calculating an employee's pension stored in computers and ready to be calculated at the push of a button. If successful, it would go a long way toward fixing a problematic retirement system that has defied all previous attempts to fix it.
OPM's current, outdated paper-based system takes several months to compile and calculate the data needed to finalize someone's pension. As a result, tens of thousands of new retirees are forced to make do with incomplete interim pensions that are sometimes half or less of what they are owed.
"We're in an interesting transition point," Zielinski said. "For quite a period of time, we'll be jumping back and forth. In some cases, we'll be looking at images and culling the data from pictures; sometimes we'll be able to use data from payroll providers, and in some instances, a bit of both."
In the meantime, roughly three dozen OPM retirement staffers are busy digitizing, processing and managing millions of personnel records in an abandoned limestone mine in Boyers, Pa., to keep up with the impending retirements.
Zielinski said his staffers share a high-speed scanner that scans about 200 pages per minute and other equipment with about 55 other OPM employees working on digitizing security clearance records. Retirement staffers take the night shift, and the security clearance employees work the other two shifts.
OPM said the retirement staffers scan and process between 5,500 and 7,500 cases per night, and imaged records can be viewed 48 hours after they are sent to the imaging unit. OPM still has 119,000 file cabinet drawers of case files to go, down from 144,000 five years ago.
"It can be a mammoth effort," Zielinski said.
After a piece of paper is scanned, OPM must go in and — with the help of home-grown software — associate searchable metadata with each image by keying in the person's name, claim number, type of record, assorted dates or other types of information. That way, OPM can easily search through the records to find the kind of information it needs.
Complicating OPM's digitization effort is the fact that over the decades, human resources officials scrawled notes in the margins of countless pages, or attached sticky notes with important information. This data must be saved, too, so the scans must be good enough that handwriting is legible and the contents of the sticky notes must also be associated with the document.
OPM then double-checks to make sure the metadata was entered accurately and the scans are crisp enough to make the handwriting legible. The agency keeps the original paper files on hand for one year after scanning, in case it later finds an image isn't up to snuff.
"That makes the case for why we want it to be structured data as early as we can, not images," Zielinski said. "If we do that, we don't allow people to make margin notes or other things that need cleanup."
But even if agencies stop using paper and move entirely to structured data, Zielinski said some records from outside the federal government will still need to be scanned and stored. In some cases, he said, OPM needs medical records to verify someone is eligible for a disability payment, or court records to decide how much of someone's pension should go to an ex-spouse.
"There's always going to be some set of documents, for the unforeseen future, that we're going to have to image," Zielinski said.
Five years ago, former OPM Director Linda Springer said she hoped to eventually have claims examiners calculate pensions without ever having to touch a scrap of paper. The government is not yet close to reaching that goal, but Zielinski is confident it will be one day.
"It's absolutely possible, and I think we'll get there," he said.