David Bowen, OPM’s new chief technology officer, is using his experience as the FAA’s CIO to modernize the government’s troubled retirement application system.
Bowen, on a one-year detail from the FAA to help fix the government’s outdated pension system and bring its backlog down to zero by 2013, has the background in fixing tough challenges and difficult systems.
At the FAA, he was responsible for taking the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System off the GAO’s high risk list in 2009 where it had been for 14 years.
He then turned to dealing with the loss of 40,000 FAA employee records and put together a “call to action” plan to reduce risk and plug the problem.
“Tackling big projects is an example of his strengths,” said Cheryl D. Rogers, director of IT optimization at the FAA’s CIO office.
“Any time there is a very highly visible program that is in trouble, he has the ability to put together an action. It is one of his strengths. He demonstrated that several times at the FAA,” she added.
Bowen has a chance to do it again as he faces the enormous task of fixing the government’s antiquated retirement system that had a backlog of more than 48,000 retirement applications on Dec. 31, 2011. It now takes an average of 156 days to process an employee’s retirement application. The goal is to bring that down to 60 days in the next 18 months.
Paper files are the biggest obstacle, he told Breaking Gov, especially for workers who may have been in the federal system for more than 30 years when electronic databases were just a dream.
“It’s very paperwork intensive,” Bowen said. “Our staff oftentimes will not get a complete retirement package, and they will have to go back and research paper. All these things combined affect timely adjudication.”
The research is complicated by many factors, he said, including situations in which a retiree has gone through divorce and has a court order for alimony payments, documents not available in an electronic form and have to be found in a paper file.
OPM Director John Berry told a Senate hearing Feb 1. that the government is “still in a paper-pencil world.” Most federal retirement information is still not automated, he said, and OPM is working to develop an IT solution.
“For the foreseeable future, we are dealing with a paper and pencil process,” Berry said. “That’s why I am hiring more people and doing it with a frozen budget.”
Berry has outlined a four-point plan to reduce the unprecedented backlog, hopefully in just 18 months. The strategy includes:
- Hire 56 new legal administrative specialists and 20 customer service specialists
- Expand work hours and use of overtime. Establish higher production standards and consider production bonuses
- Partner with other agencies to provide more feedback and involve chief human capital officers
- Upgrade technology
Bowen said Berry’s new plan will speed up the retirement process. OPM is partnering with other agencies to speed it up, too, he said, “so we can do a better job of automating it.”
With these accelerated steps in place, OPM will be able to increase its claims processing to as much as 2,000 per month before July 2012 and as much as 5,000 per month once the staff is fully trained, according to the plan, according to Berry.
“The No. 1 priority of OPM is to the backlog in retirements,” Bowen said. “My job is to look at how we can put technical steps behind it.”
After just a month on the job, Bowen acknowledged he’s still on a learning curve with a list of ‘must-do’ items.
On his list:
- Investigating ways to speed up the retirement process and get the backload down. “We’re starting to canvas the waterfront to find out what we can do in the automation area to speed up the retirement processing.”
- Providing guidance to establish IT standards across government, how to reduce duplication and what new tools and technology are available.
“We will have to help other agencies use automation,” Bowen said. “It’s an expense driver and an expense saver.”
Tackling big projects is an example of his strengths. So is incremental success.
“The days of waiting two or three years to succeed in fixing these problems is over,” said the FAA’s Rogers. “He likes to have success along the way.”
In a year, he told Breaking Gov, he’ll decide whether to stay at OPM, go back to the job as FAA’s CIO or retire.