USAJobs missteps prompt House panel to take a closer look at OPM

By Joe Davidson, The Washington Post, November 16, 2011

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry did his best Tuesday to reassure a probing congressional panel that his agency is competent to run the government’s computerized jobs board, despite early evidence to the contrary.

Although Republican jabs at OPM during the House federal workforce subcommittee hearing dripped with a partisan, ideological tone, the session revealed systemic problems in agency IT operations that extend beyond servicing job applicants and include retirement programs.

Berry, while candid about OPM’s shortcomings, provided evidence that its stewardship of has turned around since that first disastrous week in October when it took over operation of the site from Monster.

On Monday, “there were 419 Help Desk tickets down from a high of 4,000 Help Desk tickets per day in the first week,” he said. “On Facebook, we were down to 11 posts. . . .This is about a normal level of inquiries based on the size of the site.”

These indications of normal operations, however, were not enough, not that anything could be, to placate Republicans who see the USAJobs fiasco as another example of Uncle Sam doing a job that belongs in the private sector.

Democrats, though more friendly to the Obama administration’s OPM, also clearly were not happy with the agency’s IT problems that have outraged customers at the job application and retirement ends of federal employment.

Though the USAJobs debacle — which blocked many job-seekers from the site, or made it difficult for them to find their stored data, or gave them nonsensical replies to searches — prompted the session, the committee took the opportunity to look more broadly at how well the agency is performing. That was indicated in the title of the hearing: “Back to the Basics: Is OPM Meeting its Mission?”

Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee, said, “OPM’s track record calls into question its ability to resolve its hiring and retirement claims systems in order to meet its core mission.”

The mission includes getting full, timely payments to retirees, while not continuing to pay those who are dead. Although OPM has fallen short on both points, in addition to its job-application processing issues, no one made a convincing case that OPM has failed its overall mission. While putting the best face possible on the situation, Berry did not attempt to dodge responsibility. He did not use the passive political-speak that “mistakes were made.”

Instead, he admitted: “We also made mistakes” about USAJobs. “We underestimated demand, lacked agility and did not resolve applicant issues as quickly as we should have.”

Those are serious management issues. They allow Republicans to call for the business world to again run USAJobs, though Monster also had serious problems when it did. “Taxpayers are now paying for a system that doesn’t work, costs more and takes business away from the private sector,” Ross said.

Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (Wis.), the top Republican on the Senate’s federal workforce panel, has urged the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to “halt in-sourcing of the USAJobs website,” claiming that could save $58 million. That figure apparently is related to a 19 percent increase in fees that OPM reportedly is charging agencies to run USAJobs.

Berry, however, told Ross’s panel that there really is no 19 percent increase. He said the USAJobs budget was $12 million in 2008 and is $12 million today. The 19 percent relates to a rebate of fees to the agencies, before the new system was ready for construction. The fees then returned to $12 million.

The hearing exposed long-standing systemic problems in OPM, particularly in its ability to properly serve annuitants. A report by Valerie C. Melvin of the Government Accountability Office that was released at the hearing says: “IT management weaknesses have repeatedly hindered OPM’s retirement modernization efforts.”

And OPM Inspector General Patrick E. McFarland cited “the lack of institutional knowledge within OPM concerning . . . a process for building information systems in a very deliberate, structured and methodical way.”

Their critiques aren’t partisan. They pointed to serious problems with customer service in two key areas where OPM must perform: hiring people and processing retirements.

Committee members on both sides of the aisle are concerned about OPM’s performance, although Democrats expressed no interest in privatizing USAJobs.

“I wish we were talking about something that is going right,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the House panel.

“I have a bit more patience than some of my colleagues,” he added, “but not much more.”