At OPM, transparency is just a word

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This is what President Obama wrote when he took office: “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”

Apparently no one at the Office of Personnel Management got that memo. Reporters from several publications are openly venting their frustrations to one another that getting even simple answers from OPM is a nearly impossible task. Several of our inquiries have gone unanswered for months or were declined with dubious — or no — explanations.

My favorite? “You ask too many questions,” OPM Communications Director Sedelta Verble told me two months ago when I called to follow up on several unanswered inquiries.

And it’s not just reporters getting stonewalled. As Federal Times reported last month, thousands of angry federal retirees get no answer from OPM when they try to find out how long it might take before they get their full pension. Verble’s response to our original query on the matter was to insist, “This is not news.”

It might not have been news to her, but tens of thousands of readers disagreed. Their huge response to my coverage forced OPM Director John Berry to hold a press conference and grant me an interview to insist the agency takes the problem seriously and has a plan to tackle it.

The Bush administration wasn’t known for its transparency, but OPM was far more open to the public and the press then than it is today. These days, OPM’s strategy appears to be, ignore all inquiries until bad publicity and embarrassment dictate otherwise. That is, unless you want to talk about bike shares, food drives and fitness campaigns, which Verble apparently thinks are more newsworthy than when you’re going to get your full pension.

So much for the president’s pledge to create “unprecedented levels of openness.”

Now OPM’s failure to engage the media has left the agency in a weak position just when it needs the press most: To help satisfactorily explain the agency’s questionable pay survey measuring the difference between public and private salaries. This cedes the upper hand to those who argue feds are paid too much.

OPM doesn’t get it. It’s not about the media. It’s about the agency’s duty to serve and inform the federal workforce — and the press shouldn’t have to shame them into meeting that responsibility. Retirees deserve to know what’s going on with their annuities when it takes the agency half a year or more to calculate their correct amounts. And feds deserve to know what’s going on with their health care benefits — especially when their premiums are going up — yet OPM discontinued the previous administration’s practice of holding detailed briefings each fall outlining the changes.

In September, after another classic blunder where a press release announcing a 9:30 a.m. hiring reform event went out at 1 a.m., Berry said to Verble, “We’ve got to do better.”

We’re still waiting.

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  1. Steve…you hit the nail on the head. OPM has a reputation as the worst agency in government. And it’s a shame because John Berry is probably the best, most fluent, most caring director they have had in some time. Unfortunately, his staff is letting him down, time and again.

  2. No, they shouldn’t need to be shamed into transparency during ANY administration. Good job helping feds and taxpayers alike Mr. Losey.

  3. Agree. My husband wiped out his TSP savings account while waiting for a “full retirement check”. We used it to make ends meet with the shortfall. They also waited until his leave was depleted before informing him his disability retirement was approved by DC in April; he retired in June.

  4. Maybe OPM could start doing some positive public releations exemplifying excellence in federal employees. Maybe then, the public would see the positive side of federal service. Perhaps it would ease the current trend of demonize them and use them as a scape goat for Congress deficit spending.

  5. It sounds like the person at the main office should be replaced. I am a Retired Federal worker myself from the BOP and have been waiting for over a month to get a clear answer about my retirement $$$, and keep getting the run around. It is very much frustrating and unfair.

  6. It is not just the OPM. Ever since they started using the word “tranparency” (started in Bush’s last year), we have been kept in the dark about so many things. I have been told not say anything now than ever before. I had a friend that was in a public meeting–she was told that she could not speak, even if she knew the answer. She used to give answers all of the time. How is that transparent?

  7. Thank you for shinning a light on what OPM wanted to try to keep as a dark secret.

    With the backlog that OPM has, they are an example of not being able to recruit and retain the “best and brightest” in senior management.

    The Federal retirement is a very complex mess that demonstrates what poor planning and lack of foresight will produce as a final program. The entire Federal retirement system needs to be simplified and unified for those who choose to transfer from one Federal agency to another.

  8. I retired in June 2010, have been corresponding with OPM since August. All I am getting is a standard message that they are backed up and are processing retirements in the order they get them. Still no final retirement. If I had treated my “customer” this bad when I worked for the Feds, I would have been let go ASAP. Thanks for shedding some light on what is going on, this is more than I have been able to find out on my own.

  9. As a former employee of OPM I belive one will find it easier to obtain the rationale for a policy decision at DOD or DOE than OPM.

  10. Everything OPM does has a hint of secrecy. Not only OPM for federal retirees, but also OPM’s Federal Investigative Services Division (FISD) which handles millions of national security background investigations and manages the 5 or 6 contractors that conduct the investigations.

    OPM fires contractors without due process, without advising their employers why they’ve been fired, and offers no recourse or hearing to the employee. Transparency? No way. Hundreds of qualified, dedicated, contract investigators have been removed with no explanation. It’s like the rapture: one minute an employee is working and the next minute OPM arbitrarily decides they don’t belong.

    John Berry and President Obama are thoughtful men who seem sincere but they really need to work on this agency. Transparency at this point IS just a word.

  11. Everything OPM does has a hint of secrecy. Not only OPM for federal retirees, but also OPM’s Federal Investigative Services Division (FISD) which handles millions of national security background investigations and manages the 5 or 6 contractors that conduct the investigations.

    OPM fires contractors without due process, without advising their employers why they’ve been fired, and offers no recourse or hearing to the employee. Transparency? No way. Hundreds of qualified, dedicated, contract investigators have been removed with no explanation. It’s like the rapture: one minute an employee is working and the next minute OPM arbitrarily decides they don’t belong.

    John Berry and President Obama are thoughtful men who seem sincere but they really need to work on this agency. Transparency at this point IS just a word.

  12. Pingback: Fedline » OPM refuses to say how long it takes to hire someone

  13. I’ve been gettin the old OPM run around since i retired on OCT 3 2011 -gone through the long wait on the phone only to get the same answer first was told it would take 6 months to process my papers then four months then back to six monthe now ten months am sick every day i think about all this and even wrote a complaint to the OIG for opm at first i thought he would help but now i was wrong -this is what you get after working for the government for fourty years

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