IG: OPM Still Has Work to Do to Improve Retirement Applications Process

A recent IG report offers suggestions on ways OPM can improve its retirement applications process for federal employees.

A new report from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) Inspector General (IG) says that the agency’s Retirement Services division has more work to do to improve its application process for retiring federal employees.

Report Recommendations

The report recommended that OPM make improvements to its monthly Agency Audit Report, provide better transparency in reporting monthly retirement application processing times, and complete the remaining five of the original six recommendations from a 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report addressing ways to solve problems with OPM’s retirement applications process.

Improving the Monthly Agency Audit Report

Among the recommendations for OPM’s monthly Agency Audit Report, the IG said that OPM’s Retirement Services’ Associate Director should establish quality control measures to ensure complete and accurate errors are captured and reported.

Feedback the IG got from other agency Benefits Officers said that they would like OPM Retirement Services to increase communication with them. The IG report states, “…the respondents indicated that trying to contact Retirement Services to discuss its monthly Agency Audit Report and the status of application packages is very difficult. Agencies are providing feedback about inaccurate errors, but respondents then hear nothing back from RS. In addition, respondents indicated that agencies do not have a direct contact to check the status of application packages.”

Benefits Officers also said in their comments it would be helpful if OPM would improve training for them on retirement cases on matters dealing with things such as the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) program, Federal Employees Group Life Insurance (FEGLI), marriage certificates, and complex court-involved cases.

Lastly, comments said that they wanted OPM to move to an electronic processing system and get away from the cumbersome paper-based retirement application process, something on which the agency is currently working.

Improving Transparency in Reporting Retirement Application Processing Times

The IG also suggested that OPM provide a better breakdown in its monthly retirement processing status reports to illustrate the discrepancies in processing times for “healthy” (error-free) retirement applications versus “unhealthy” (those with errors) applications.

In a sample of applications the IG collected, the difference between the two was striking. For a sample of 6 healthy retirement applications, the average processing time was 53 days whereas for a sample of 7 unhealthy applications, the average processing time was 108 days, a difference of 104%.

The IG suggested that OPM track and report processing times based on healthy versus unhealthy retirement application packages. However, OPM said that its current technology prohibits it from doing this which is part of the reason it is currently working on modernizing the retirement applications process with an electronic system.

Addressing Open Recommendations from the 2019 GAO Report

The last part of the IG report focused on the outstanding recommendations from the 2019 GAO report which outlined problems OPM has with its retirement applications process. Five of the six original recommendations are still open.

One of the primary reasons was that OPM still relies on a paper-based processing system, however, OPM is currently working on developing a modern electronic system. The IG report states:

The time it takes for Retirement Services to process retirement claims is often longer than customers would expect and Retirement Services’ stated goal of 60 days. Retirement Services is currently working on piloting the Online Retirement Application with a small number of agencies. OPM is also hoping to invest in a case management system that would facilitate electronic filing and is exploring ways to fund this needed system. Expanding the services available online is particularly important given the demand for telephone assistance from OPM. OPM could reduce the need for annuitants to call the agency by enabling annuitants to access more tasks and information online.

Another reason cited by the IG report is staffing issues and a lack of certainty about the number of staff OPM needs to meet its stated goals for the retirement claims backlog. The IG report states:

During the surge period of work, Retirement Services uses data from operational reports in the surge plan, overtime, and outside resources from other agencies to augment workload. Throughout the year, Retirement Services uses the operational reports to monitor workloads levels to shift resources as needed, which can include priorities shifting and/or budgetary restraints. This approach is discussed on a weekly basis during weekly operational manager meetings. However, Retirement Services still does not know how much additional staff would be needed to meet its processing goal or reduce the overall inventory of unprocessed applications to its targeted steady state goal.

The “surge period” it is referring to is coming up fast. This always happens at the end of a calendar year when a large number of federal employees retire, so the number of retirement claims that come into OPM is massive and is reflected in the January and February monthly reports in particular. Last January for instance, the OPM retirement backlog grew by 15%. The increase was even bigger in 2022.

These are the OPM recommendations from the 2019 GAO report:

  1. The Associate Director of OPM’s Retirement Services, working in coordination with the Chief Information Officer, should develop, document, and implement a Retirement Services’ IT modernization plan for initial project phases that is consistent with key aspects of IT project management, such as determining objectives, costs, and time frames for each initial phase.
  2. The Associate Director of OPM’s Retirement Services should adopt management practices to enhance the use of performance information on processing timeliness to inform how OPM manages operations, identifies problem areas, and allocates resources. For example, OPM could enhance use of performance measures at the operational level or establish a timeliness performance goal for reviewing disability retirement eligibility.
  3. The Associate Director of OPM’s Retirement Services should develop and implement policies and procedures for assessing strategies intended to improve processing times, including collecting data needed to support those strategies, such as collecting better productivity data of staffing data and linking them to processing outcomes.
  4. The Associate Director of OPM’s Retirement Services should examine its process for assessing its assistance to agencies on retirement applications. For example, OPM could incorporate into its assessment process more agency feedback or documentation of assessment results, which could improve its partnership with agencies to strengthen the assistance provided.
  5. The Associate Director of OPM’s Retirement Services should work with agencies to determine if there are cost-effective ways to make the retirement application error report that it sends to agencies more user-friendly. For example, explore whether there are cost-effective ways to provide the error report in a format that could be manipulated (e.g., Excel spreadsheet), or to include additional information, such as incorporating disability retirement applications or providing clearer descriptions of errors or trend data, some of which OPM already collects.

The one closed recommendation said that OPM’s Retirement Services Associate Director “should provide explanatory information, such as the range of processing times and the
exclusion of disability retirement eligibility determinations, as part of the performance measure on processing times.”

The IG report goes on to state:

Fully implementing these GAO open recommendations and our five recommendations could significantly improve Retirement Services’ operations in processing of initial retirement claim applications, Retirement Services’ assistance to agencies for submitting more complete and accurate application packages, and applicants’ frustrations with the amount of time Retirement Services is taking to review and process retirement application packages.

OPM has made strides this year in improving its retirement applications backlog. In the spring, the agency released a new guide to help federal employees better understand and prepare for the retirement application process. Part of the intent of the report is to help cut down on the number of errors in retirement applications the agency receives which is the number one cause of processing delays.

The OPM retirement backlog has also hit six-year lows on two occasions so far in 2023. After growing again in October, the backlog now stands at 16,678.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.