The nominee for director of the Office of Personnel Management, Jeff Pon said during a Senate hearing on Wednesday that he aims to cut down the significant lag times in employee hiring, retirement payments and benefits claims if confirmed to the post.
“I think the frustration of processing benefits or background investigations or even retirement is unacceptable. We do need to do a better job in doing that,” said Pon.
According to Pon, the technologies to resolve many of these problems already exist in the private sector.
“The technology is not the problem, it’s actually making sure that we execute on putting things together and simplifying things, and making sure that the transactional data, not just paper, but transactional data that you need can actually be transacted in an efficient and effective manner,” Pon said of the backlog in retirement payments.
Pon already has experience managing technology initiatives for federal employee services, as he was the director of eGovernment at OPM from 2003-2005 and managed five of the agency’s human resources IT initiatives. Pon then served as the chief human capital officer at the Department of Energy before leaving federal service to work in the private sector.
When asked whether he would be able to get average hiring times down below three months, Pon responded that he thought three months was even too long, and described an exercise he conducted while working at the Department of Energy, where, with HR commitment and cooperation, they were able to hire several employees within two days of a hiring event.
“That was really to demonstrate a point, that we can do it if we tried,” said Pon. “In terms of hiring, we need to speed things up, we need to make sure that everyone all the way down the line actually understands the authorities that they have. And if they don’t have those authorities, I will talk to you and your constituents and make sure that we can discuss the issues and the challenges of hiring and maintaining the talent that you have.”
Pon’s statements earned him support from the National Active and Retired Federal Employee Association, who applauded his focus on the federal workforce as the key to government success.
“It was encouraging to hear that Dr. Pon is aware of the need to make federal retirement claims processing simpler, quicker and modern. As many retirees are awaiting their full annuity, if confirmed, he should make this a top priority as OPM director. We were also pleased that he committed to improving the hiring process to ensure we are recruiting the best and brightest in a timely manner – and that he expressed his support for modernizing policies affecting the civil service, and how OPM operates,” said NARFE National President Richard G. Thissen. “Dr. Pon’s statements and background indicate he is qualified for the position, and understands the importance of OPM’s role within the federal government. If the Senate approves his nomination, we look forward to working with him.”
Pon also warned of the “inconsistencies” that result from the federal government placing its security clearance resources in many different organizations, such as has been proposed for the Department of Defense to take over clearance investigations from OPM’s National Background Investigation Bureau.
“Proper planning is required currently for looking at whether or not it’s feasible,” said Pon.
He added that his priorities would be for standardization, unification, and simplification in the clearance process.
Both Pon and the nominee for deputy director of OPM, Michael Rigas, said that they would be committed to information security in the agency and preventing events like the 2015 OPM data breach from happening again.
“One of the first things I would do if confirmed would be to work with the internal and external stakeholders involved in the information technology area for OPM – and that would include both the chief information officer and the chief information security officer – to assess what progress has been made to date, what their plans are for ongoing progress and assess if we need to change course or if we are on target to meet the security and data protection needs that I think the federal government demands,” said Rigas.
“On my watch, we will make sure that we not only have the qualified people, but that we have a plan to execute and deter the risks that we have,” said Pon. “It is unacceptable to me to have people that are not trained in the current ways that we protect our data.”
However, Pon was warned that committee chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., may hold up his confirmation process in order to get answers about the employer contribution policies for congressional healthcare. Pon stated that though he cannot determine what documents on that topic are available within OPM before taking over the director position, he would personally look into the matter if confirmed.
“OPM has been without a Senate-confirmed director for more than two years. Given the numerous challenges facing the agency, such as a growing retirement backlog and data security still lagging, it is past time for a director,” said Thissen.
Jessie Bur covered the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees for Federal Times.