Federal employees’ retirement applications take almost twice as long to process when they contain errors, leading to further delays in processing and dispensing annuities, according to a watchdog report published Monday.
The Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general found that “healthy” application packages took on average 53 days to process, and “unhealthy” ones containing errors took more than 108 days, according to a random sample of applications the inspector general studied.
That discrepancy needs be reflected in the data OPM reports monthly to accurately monitor whether retirement processing is improving, the IG report said.
“The lack of transparency for healthy versus unhealthy ‘incomplete’ application packages limits the quality of information being provided to external parties as the main cause for why Retirement Services has not met its goal for processing retirement application packages within 60 days,” according to the report.
OPM has been on the hook for some years now to address backlogs of retirement claims that federal employees have said contribute to significant delays in receiving their benefits. The agency has yet to meet its goal of processing most applications in two months, though year-to-date, its pace has improved steadily.
“It has been reported that average retirement processing times have been far above the agency’s stated goal of 60 days— instead often exceeding 90 days,” wrote Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin in a joint letter to the agency in April.
OPM said that retirees may have to wait longer than usual if their retirement forms are missing information or are reporting it incorrectly. However, there are also inaccurate error reports that respondents said OPM does not help correct.
“The benefits officers and payroll providers expressed frustration that they are spending a lot of time verifying and researching errors included in the monthly Agency Audit Report,” it read. “The report is being posted online with government-wide comparisons and distributed to senior officials with inaccuracies.”
They also said that trying to contact OPM with questions or feedback about false errors is often met with silence.
OPM and its watchdog agreed that part of the issue is inefficient technology. A digital system to track applications, identify bottlenecks and automatically kick back incomplete or error-ridden packages could help alleviate the manual workload on OPM’s retirement services staff. However, none such exists, though officials said in the report they’re working on identifying funding for fiscal 2024 and beyond for that purpose.
Melvin Brown, II, the agency’s deputy chief information officer, told Federal Times in a Sept. 27 interview that modernizing the retirement program is at the top of his IT wishlist for the year ahead.
“I’d like to see us deliver on the online retirement application and do our best to move our retirement system to more modern business delivery,” he said.
Already, the agency has experimented with a chatbot and a self-service tool to improve customer service and reduce the number of duplicate inquiries sent, or phoned, to OPM.
A pilot of the Online Retirement Application is currently underway with a small number of agencies. Another product OPM is looking into is a case-management system to track applications in real time.
Modernization as a people problem
Brown II said the success of this modernization initiative and others also hinges on employing and training a workforce to implement and sustain them.
“We’ve got to make equal investments in people the same way we do in tech,” he said. “I think we’ve been so focused on buying a bunch of tech and celebrating the purchase of tech, but we were not getting the adoption that we were hoping for because we haven’t made equal investments in people.”
The report suggested that retirement services needs to determine exactly how much additional staff it needs.
OPM previously told Federal Times that it has established “tiger teams” of employees to tackle pending retirement cases. On top of that, when vacancies do happen, OPM works to quickly train new hires.
In the report, respondents wanted specific guidance on cases dealing with marriage certificates, court cases and group life insurance.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.