Scanning The Past To Move To The Future

HHS is the largest federal agency to convert employee OPF’s into scanned documents for computers.

Anyone who has worked in the depths of a federal personnel office (or had a reason to visit one), may recall a large room with hundreds or thousands of paper files going from the floor to the ceiling.

Some of the mechanical drawers holding all that paper look relatively modern (i.e., from the 1970’s or so) because metal drawers have replaced the wooden ones, but a federal employee from the early 1900’s would not feel out of place walking into the room storing official personnel folders.

And, when it came time to process a personnel action, the faithful bureaucrat could have stepped out of time from 75 or 100 years ago, put on his green eyeshades, and started flipping through the yellowing pages of paper detailing every promotion, transfer, within-grade increase, or disciplinary action that ever happened to an employee working for the government.

While you may go online to the internet at your desk in just about any federal government office in the country, when you need to document a personnel action, the same process used by your great-grandfather may still be going strong as you fill out a multi-page form that will eventually make its way into the brown folder containing your official work history.

So, while word-processing machines made their way into federal offices back in the 1970’s, and computers made their inroads into the bureaucracy in the 1980’s, the internet started becoming common in the 1990’s, it is possible that the 2000’s will see the advent of electronic personnel folders.

No doubt, converting hundreds of thousands or hundreds of millions of files is a big task. No one knows if the effort to convert all that federal paperwork into electronic bits that can be seen on a computer screen will work or not. No doubt, a number of employees whose salary increases and promotions depend on accurate records will dread the day that their agency announces a push to convert the old, faithful, yellowing pieces of paper into electronic documents and will cause more than a little anxiety as employees wait to see if the results include all the documents they think are in the official files.

What if a few key pages are missing? What if the old pages are thrown away and can’t be retrieved?

Welcome to the 21st century.

The Department of Health and Human Services is not the first agency to undertake this project but it is one the largest to undertake this daunting task. HHS has a myriad of offices spread throughout large and small cities. No doubt, as employees find out about the project, there will be a lot of questions.

There is also no doubt that the project offers a lot of potential advantages to employees. No longer will they have to trek to the servicing personnel office. And, with consolidations and closing of many HR offices, the trek is no longer down the hall or the building down the street; it may be in the next town or the next state.

The eOPF project is being done in conjunction with the Office of Personnel Management. Some of the benefits for employees being touted by the agency include:

• Employees will be able to view or print OPF records online, at home or at work, and check personnel file information or verify its accuracy.

• Employees will receive automatic e-mail notification when documents are added to the the eOPF.

• Records will be more accurate and transfer faster iwhen moving from one agency to another.

No question the conversion process is a big job. The agency intends to inventory, box, and ship all the OPF’s to an off-site facility where they will be scanned, indexed and checked.

Fear of losing data is another issue that will undoubtedly come to mind for anyone who has had to deal with large computer databases with missing or incorrect information. For the OPF’s, the Office of Personnel Management will be hosting electronic system for agencies. Nightly incremental backups will be conducted, which include all new documents and any related information added on a given day. Full system-wide backups are planned each week.

So when will this new feature of the federal employment landscape be completed? No one really knows and, even if they have dates in mind, they are likely to slip. But there is no doubt the computer age has reached the federal government, even to the interior of that vast reservoir of paperwork, the federal human resources office.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47